12 companies collaborate with NASA on tech frontiers

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is among 12 companies chosen to collaborate with NASA on new technologies that could become part of future missions to the moon and Mars.

Blue Origin has signed up to work with NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama on friction-stir additive manufacturing. It’ll also partner with Langley as well as Ames Research Center in California to work on a metallic thermal protection system.

“We’re pleased to have been selected by NASA to partner on developing these technologies,” Blue Origin said in an email.

NASA says Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin and the other 11 companies will advance capabilities and technologies related to the space agency’s Moon to Mars Objectives. The work will be done under the terms of unfunded Space Act Agreements, following up on an Announcement of Collaboration Opportunity issued last year.

That means no money will be transferred between NASA and its partners. Instead, NASA will make its in-house expertise available to help the companies develop products that the space agency could procure for future missions.


Good news, bad news for Relativity’s 3D-printed rocket

More than seven years after it was founded in a Seattle co-working space, Relativity Space launched its first 3D-printed rocket on a test mission that began with a triumphant glow but fell short of complete success.

Relativity’s two-stage, 110-foot-tall Terran 1 rocket rose from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s Launch Complex 16 in Florida for a flight test dubbed “Good Luck, Have Fun,” or GLHF.

The startup’s first-ever launch brought frustration as well as fun.


Relativity will upgrade 3-D printing process for rockets

Relativity Space, the startup that was founded in Seattle and is now building 3D-printed rockets in Southern California, has brought in a Microsoft executive to lead its growing software engineering team and expand upon its AI-powered “Factory Operating System.”

Scott Van Vliet, who headed up the team behind the Microsoft Teams collaboration platform as a corporate vice president, will oversee more than 150 of Relativity’s employees on its Integrative Software and Additive Manufacturing teams as senior vice president of software engineering. He’ll be based in the Los Angeles area.

Before his four-year stint at Microsoft, Van Vliet played a leading role in the development of Amazon’s Echo devices and Alexa voice-assistant platform. He told me that he’s looking forward to helping Relativity Space revolutionize industrial applications for 3-D metal printing, just as he helped Microsoft and Amazon blaze trails for collaborative software and AI assistants.

“Thinking about where we’re going with our Stargate family of printers, and the technologies that we’re building across the stack, we can apply similar models of machine learning to transform the way we do predictive modeling, predictive printing, and build the products that we’re going to build,” Van Vliet said.


Relativity gets a $500M boost for printing out rockets

Relativity Space says it’s brought in another $500 million in investment to speed up its effort to build entire orbital-class rockets using 3D printing.

The startup — which was founded in Seattle less than five years ago and is now headquartered in Long Beach, Calif. — has attracted more than $685 million from investors so far, and is said to have a total valuation in excess of $2 billion.

That rise to unicorn status has sparked comparisons to another California-based space venture, SpaceX, even though Relativity has yet to launch a rocket.

In a news release, Relativity Space CEO Tim Ellis said his company is on track to execute the first launch of its Terran 1 rocket from Florida next year, thanks to existing capital on its balance sheet.

“With this new Series D funding, we will now dramatically accelerate the development of our long-term plans and look beyond first launch,” said Ellis, who co-founded Relativity Space after working for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture in Kent, Wash.


Boeing ships out virus-blocking face shields

Face shield
Sean Thuston, a machinist at Boeing Research and Technology, tries on a face shield. (Boeing via Twitter)

Boeing has shut down airplane production until further notice due to the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s pushing forward with production of medical equipment to shut down the virus’ spread.

The company says its first shipment of 2,300 face shields, manufactured using its 3-D printing capabilities in Puget Sound and other locales across the United States, was handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services today.

In a news release, Boeing said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will deliver the shields to the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in Dallas, which has been turned into a treatment site for COVID-19 patients. Medical professionals will use the shields as part of their personal protection equipment.

In addition to the shields, Boeing has donated tens of thousands of masks, gloves and other equipment to hospitals in need.

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Blue Origin turns from spaceships to face shields

3-D printing face shield visors
A worker at Blue Origin’s production facility in Kent, Wash., gets 3-D printed face shield visors ready for shipping. (Blue Origin via Twitter)

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture isn’t just turning out parts for rocket ships nowadays: It’s also using 25 of its additive manufacturing machines to turn out 3-D printed visors for hospital face shields.

“Our machines are running 24 hours a day, seven days per week,” Blue Origin said in a posting about the project.

The visors serve as frames for the clear sheets of plastic that serve to protect the faces of health care workers as they treat COVID-19 patients.

About 100 of the plastic visors are produced each day at Blue Origin’s factory in Kent, Wash. They’re shipped off to Stratasys, one of the company’s supply partners, for distribution to hospitals in need around the country.

Stratasys says 40,000 face shields are needed over the course of a week during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Boeing adds to its investment in Morf3D venture

Ivan Madera
Morf3D CEO Ivan Madera says the company’s vision of becoming a world-class leader in metals additive manufacturing for the aerospace industry is “truly taking form.” (Morf3D Photo via PRNewswire)

Boeing’s venture capital arm has added to its investment in Morf3D, a California startup that focuses of aerospace applications for 3-D printing.

The fresh investment, announced today, follows a Series A investment round that Boeing HorizonX Ventures co-led back in April 2018. The precise amount of the investment hasn’t been released, either for last year’s round or for the newly reported round. However, HorizonX’s investments are typically in the range of seven figures or the low eight figures.

Since its founding in 2015, Morf3D has taken on 3-D printing projects for Boeing as well as Honeywell, Collins and other aerospace companies. Its work for Boeing has focused on aluminum and titanium components for satellites and helicopters.

In today’s news release, Morf3D said the fresh funding follows a significant increase in customer demand.

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3-D printer plus recycler installed in orbit

Installation of Refabricator
NASA astronaut Anne McClain installs Tethers Unlimited’s Refabricator recycling and 3-D printing payload aboard the International Space Station. (NASA Photo via Tethers Unlimited)

NASA astronauts on the International Space Station have installed the first integrated 3-D printer and plastic recycler to go into orbit, and it’s currently being checked out for experiments that are due to start in the next few weeks.

The Refabricator, a device about the size of a dorm-room refrigerator, was built at Tethers Unlimited’s headquarters in Bothell, Wash., under the terms of a $2.5 million contract from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. It was tested at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and sent up to the station on a Northrop Grumman Cygnus resupply flight in November.

Tethers Unlimited engineers supported the space station operations team while NASA astronaut (and Spokane native) Anne McClain installed the Refabricator into the space station’s experiment racks.

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3-D printer and recycler is set for space delivery

Refabricator testing
Payload development engineer Marko Baricevic of Tethers Unlimited Inc. conducts flight certification tests at Marshall Space Flight Center. (NASA Photo / Emmett Givens)

There’s nothing new about having a 3-D printer in space, but how about a 3-D printer that also recycles plastic to turn old stuff into new? Just such a gizmo is due to be delivered to the International Space Station next week.

Bothell, Wash.-based Tethers Unlimited built the device, which is about the size of a mini fridge and is known as the Refabricator, in cooperation with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. After months of testing, the Refabricator is on the payload manifest for Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo resupply flight, scheduled for liftoff from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility on Nov. 15.

If all proceeds according to schedule, the uncrewed Cygnus craft should arrive at the station a couple of days after launch. Once the cargo is unloaded, the Refabricator will be installed and put through a series of test prints.

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Boeing boosts Digital Alloys’ metal 3-D printing tech

Metal 3-D printing
Digital Alloys has developed a technology known as Joule Printing for additive manufacturing of metal components. (Digital Alloys Photo)

Boeing HorizonX says it’s investing in Digital Alloys, a Massachusetts-based startup specializing in metal additive manufacturing, which adds to more than a dozen companies in Boeing’s tech venture capital portfolio.

The $12.9 million Series B financing round announced today was led by G20 Ventures. Other participants in the round include Lincoln Electric and Khosla Ventures, a prior investor. Boeing HorizonX didn’t announce how much it was putting in, but its investments are typically in the multimillion-dollar range.

Digital Alloys, which was spun out from NVBots last year, is virtually certain to see its metal 3-D printing technology used to build Boeing aerospace parts.

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