X-Bow’s mobile rocket 3D printing technology slated for Air Force testing

Rocket 3D printing firm X-Bow Systems has delivered its newly developed mobile 3D printing unit to the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) for testing.

Named Pathfinder I, the ‘Rocket Factory In-A-Box’ (RFIB) is a miniature, containerized production facility designed for 3D printing solid rocket motor components and the solid fuels used to power them. The low-cost demonstration unit is all about manufacturing flexibility, enabling the rapid fabrication of custom rocket motor systems in a small and portable package.

Pathfinder I was delivered to the AFRL in Edwards, California, and was developed in partnership with AFRL’s Eternal Quiver Program.

“Advanced propulsion technology, cutting-edge manufacturing, and our talented and dedicated team of engineers are critical to developing next-generation rocket solutions,” said Jill Marsh, RFIB Program Manager at X-Bow. “Over the next several years, X-Bow aims to work together with AFRL to identify projects and technologies to evolve the Pathfinder I capability for use in defense and other applications.”

Rendering of the inside of Pathfinder I. Image via AFRL.
Rendering of the inside of Pathfinder I. Image via AFRL.

3D printing solid rockets with X-Bow

Established back in 2016, X-Bow Systems specializes in the development of 3D printed rocket motors and solid fuels. The New Mexico-headquartered startup only just exited stealth mode in March 2022, having already created a portfolio of small rocket launch vehicles suitable for both orbital and suborbital launches.

As the name might suggest, solid fuel rocket engines operate using propellants that come in solid granular form. Thanks to their simplicity and robustness, they’re often used for military applications. The company claims that its solid rocket motors are both more efficient and more cost-effective than conventional counterparts, combining responsiveness, flexibility, and reliability.

Despite its infancy, X-Bow is already making waves in the defense sphere. The company has secured several contracts with U.S. government organizations, while its list of existing customers includes the AFRL, AFWERX, Los Alamos National Lab, Sandia National Lab, and the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

More recently, in April, X-Bow Systems also closed a $27 million Series A funding round, including contributions from defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The funding round was shortly followed by a static fire test of the company’s 32″ diameter ‘Ballesta’ solid rocket motor.

X-Bow testing one of its solid fuel rocket engines. Photo via X-Bow.
X-Bow testing one of its solid-fuel rocket engines. Photo via X-Bow.

The Pathfinder I demonstration unit

The Pathfinder I manufacturing unit is ultimately designed to address the challenges of traditional rocket prototyping. According to the AFRL, solid rockets for tech demonstrations typically require up to ten years to reach live fire testing, while an operational variant might require up to 20 years for full production. As such, there’s a need for faster and more streamlined on-demand manufacturing processes to accelerate technology transfer.

X-Bow’s mobile 3D printing facility removes many of the design and time constraints plaguing conventional production, enabling “affordable rocket propulsion anytime, anywhere”.

The unit features several modules, the first of which is involved with fuel synthesis. Here, the propellant formulation is created using microfluidic reactors to achieve a high level of fuel property control. Then, a resonant acoustic mixer homogenizes the propellant formulation via vibrations.

The key additive manufacturing module is then used to 3D print the solid fuel grains, as well as the nozzle of the rocket motor. The fuel is then integrated with the structural casing of the rocket and comprehensive imaging tools are used to evaluate the rockets in a non-destructive manner.

Dr Shawn Phillips, Chief of the Rocket Propulsion Division at AFRL Rocket Lab, said, “I look forward to our continued collaboration with X-Bow Systems and witnessing their technology change and modernize how we manufacture solid rocket motors. The pace of the world’s threats and evolution of capabilities means we cannot stand still. This demonstration unit will allow us to redefine what solid rocket motor production means in the 21st century.”

Blueprint for the Pathfinder I mobile rocket 3D printing unit. Image via AFRL.
The Pathfinder I mobile rocket 3D printing unit. Image via AFRL.

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Featured image shows the Pathfinder I mobile rocket 3D printing unit. Image via AFRL.