Mark Shortt

Today, U.S. aerospace and defense suppliers are being called upon to meet the needs of an evolving national security landscape that increasingly prizes adaptability and innovation. They’re answering the call by providing reliable manufacturing services—from thermal processing of space satellite components to rotary forging of battle tank wheels and 3D printing of submarine valves—and digital engineering capabilities for development of supersonic and hypersonic aircraft.

In January, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released its first National Defense Industrial Strategy (NDIS), a comprehensive plan for achieving its vision of a “modernized defense industrial system.” Its top strategic priorities, the DoD said in a release, include resilient supply chains “that can securely produce the products, services, and technologies needed now and in the future at speed, scale, and cost.”

Previously, the DoD had outlined the need to shore up its domestic industrial base of providers of specific manufacturing processes, components, materials, and technologies—including castings, forgings, microelectronics, and a variety of advanced materials, as well as cyber capabilities.

As a result of this need, companies with expertise in advanced materials, such as composites, are increasingly sought by aerospace and defense customers for their ability to engineer and manufacture customized structures and components. One, Rock West Composites (RWC), is an advanced composites company that develops, engineers, manufactures, and tests composite products for multiple industries, from aerospace and defense to commercial equipment.

Working as a Tier 1, 2, or 3 supplier, Rock West Composites manufactures structures and components that support airplanes, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or drones), spacecraft, missiles, military vehicles, and shipboard applications, according to the company’s website. For the space industry, RWC has delivered products ranging from bus structures to solar array panels and wings, strut assemblies, and launch vehicle components.

Rock West Composites made headlines recently by providing components for Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 Mission to the Moon. The company said in a release that it “provided multiple configurations of struts to Intuitive Machines for incorporation into its Nova-C lunar lander,” Odysseus, which launched in February. The machined and tested struts reportedly met challenging surface profile and straightness requirements for interior and exterior dimensions. They were integrated with bonded fittings and were pull-tested in-house at RWC prior to final integration at Intuitive Machines, the company said in the release.

“We are honored to support our commercial customers in this race to the Moon and, ultimately, a sustained human presence there,” said Rock West Composites Space Segment Director Jeremy Senne, in the release. “Our precision composite components can give our customers the performance they need to succeed in this high-risk and clearly challenging business.” For more on the struts provided by Rock West Composites, see the Advanced Materials article, Composite Components Are Key to Intuitive Machines’ IM-1 Mission to the Moon.

Another company, Sierra Space, describes itself as a commercial space company and emerging defense technology prime contractor. The company recently launched a new space technology incubator dedicated to fast-tracking the development of innovative defense technologies. Described as “an innovation-at-speed incubator,” the Sierra Space Axelerator™ has already spawned three new technologies, according to a company release.

One is a space delivery system engineered to safely return objects from space to precise locations on Earth. The system reportedly went from development to flight testing in 90 days, a testament to Axelerator’s rapid prototyping and development capabilities. Sierra Space is also introducing  a satellite designed for precision rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), and what it called “an advanced AI-enabled operating system” that reportedly will be capable of operating “across space, air, and ground systems seamlessly.” For more on Sierra Space’s space technology incubator, see the Tech Updates article, Space Tech Incubator Aims to Fast-Track defense Technology Innovations.

Aerospace and defense companies today are increasingly leveraging 3D printing to speed production of critical parts and equipment. Sidus Space uses what it calls a “state-of-the-art production process” to manufacture a hybrid, 3D-printed satellite that focuses on earth observation and remote sensing.

“Once full production cadence is achieved, the expected time to manufacture the satellites is 45 days and includes printing and assembly,” the company said in a release.

Markforged flame-retardant Onyx FR-A material is used to make the bus structure “with metal-like strength, while also reducing cost, weight, and production time,” according to the release.

Sidus Space, based in Cape Canaveral, Florida, describes itself as a “multi-faceted space and data-as-a-service satellite company.”

“Sidus’s cutting edge, state-of-the-art LizzieSats are at the core of our high-margin Data-as-a-Service business model,” said Sidus Space CEO and Founder Carol Craig, in the release. “The combination of our rapid, 3D-printing production process, our multi-sensor coincident data collection, and the integration of on-orbit AI gives Sidus an edge as we build our satellite constellation to collect and sell data to our customers.” For more on the satellite, see the Tech Updates piece, Space Company Establishes Two-Way Communications with Hybrid 3D-Printed Satellite.

In the military and defense arena, 3D printing can be used to rapidly manufacture critical parts and products at the tactical edge, a process that eliminates supply chain inefficiencies in the production of complex designs.

In one case, mission support provider and government contractor KVG recently added 15 of Nexa3D’s High-Speed Extrusion (HSE™) series 3D printers to its portfolio of deployable manufacturing equipment, according to a release from Nexa3D. The printers are suited for complex polymer production applications and are reportedly up to five times faster than competing extrusion technologies.

According to the release, KVG chose Nexa3D’s HSE series for its speed and precision. The printers are expected to bolster KVG’s capability to deliver cutting-edge and efficient support in the demanding and rugged environments where they operate, including rapid, on-demand production of crucial components in the field.

“We are excited to add additional Nexa3D HSE series 3D printers to our portfolio and integrate these systems into our operations,” said John Boyer, founder and CEO of KVG, in the release. “Collaboration and agile platforms are key to maintaining a strategic advantage. The speed, precision, and versatility of these printers will greatly enhance our capabilities and support our commitment to exceptional service in mission-critical situations.”