Impacts of ULA’s Sale on the Future of Aerospace Manufacturing


SES-15 satellite by Boeing involved 3D printing to make [Source: 3DEO]

Preeti Sulibhavi and Charles Goulding look at the 3D print possibilities that may open up should United Launch Alliance (ULA) be sold.

ULA is the rocket launch business jointly owned by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. With 155 successful missions spanning nearly 15 years, ULA has established itself as the most reliable launch provider in the industry. The company’s largest customers are NASA and the Department of Defense (DoD), who rely on ULA to deliver critical national security and scientific payloads into space.

However, change may be on the horizon for this staple of the aerospace sector. Since early 2023, rumors have swirled regarding the potential sale of ULA. Among the rumored bidders are Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin commercial space firm, private equity giant Cerberus Capital Management, and an unnamed major aerospace company. As an established player in the launch services marketplace, Blue Origin potentially stands to gain the most from an ULA acquisition. Absorbing ULA’s contracts, expertise, and launch vehicles would bolster Blue Origin’s position in the sector.

It’s always a possibility in any joint venture that one of the parent companies could end up as the buyer. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin hold a 50% stake in ULA, so either could potentially take full ownership. Though, any such sale would need to navigate through regulatory oversight from both the FTC and Department of Justice, considering both competitive and national security implications.

3D printing technology is vital to ULA and the future of space industry. All major ULA stakeholders have invested heavily in the 3D Printing technology in the past few years, spanning rocket production, satellites, and space exploration.

Boeing has been utilizing 3D Printing in creating intricate rocket engine parts and satellite parts that are lighter and more robust than their traditionally manufactured counterparts.

Today, 3D printing has integrated itself into Boeing’s standard design processes. Boeing isn’t alone either. 3D printing is gaining significance, speeding up satellite production, reducing lead times, and offering complex design choices.

Boeing has initiated the launch of the SES-15 satellite, incorporating more than 50 metal 3D printed components. This signifies a new direction towards innovation for Boeing.

Several satellite manufacturing firms are now incorporating 3D printing into their production methods. Surrey Satellite Technology, a British organization, has been observed stating that 3D printing is unmistakably “altering the space economy”.

3D printing is also utilised in the fabrication of smaller satellites, commonly known as “cubesats”.

Lockheed Martin has manufactured various spacecraft elements necessary for NASA’s Orion exploration initiative using 3D printing. Components produced include environmental seals, cable trays and even a 3D printed shelter that will be used by astronauts.

Lockheed Martin’s first 3D printed component for a spacecraft, a small titanium waveguide bracket, had its maiden flight in space. Learn more about it here.

NASA is a known beneficiary of 3D printing, using it for various space applications including the creation of test components for rockets and habitats beyond Earth. The International Space Station has 3D printers on site for the production of tools as needed by the crew.

The image we no longer present depicted a 3D printed copper rocket engine.

The Air Force also massively takes advantage of 3D Printing technology, using it to maintain aircraft and fabricate rocket parts no longer being produced. The Air Force teamed up with Essentium to create and implement 3D printing applications for tooling, ground support, maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), not to mention parts that are flight-certified for military aircraft and ground vehicles. All these components will soon be heading to the US Air Force and the National Guard Bureau (NGB), saving both branches millions of dollars in the process.

The US Air Force tested and prototyped new materials and processes using the Essentium High Speed Extrusion (HSE) technology. The US Air Force tapped into Essentium’s materials expertise to enable drop-in replacements for Military Specified materials, such as phenolics, and is targeting the certification of four times the quantity of materials at reduced cost and time than is currently possible with the technology solutions used by the Air Force.

As the launch industry continues evolving, the expertise and resources required to leverage 3D printing will only become more vital. Any prospective ULA buyer would be wise to understand the incumbent aerospace companies’ substantial existing investments in 3D printing. Doing so would allow them to fully capitalize on synergies across this innovative set of technologies and processes.

We have previously covered the relevance of 3D Printing with rockets in multiple Fabbaloo articles including our review of Ashlee Vance’s book “When the Heavens Went on Sale: The Rocket Pioneers Revolutionizing Space” and “3D Printing Implications of the L3Harris Technologies Acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne.”

The Research & Development Tax Credit

The enduring Research & Development (R&D) Tax Credit now supports businesses fostering new or innovative products, processes, and/or software.

3D printing is a notable factor in enhancing a business’s eligibility for R&D Tax Credits. The wages of technical staff who design, test, and adapt 3D printed prototypes can be factored in as part of the qualifying time for the R&D Tax Credit. Similarly, efforts devoted to integrating 3D printing hardware and software as a process improvement technique also qualify. Lastly, costs of filaments used during the product development process also count towards potential credits.

From modeling and pre-production stages to the final output, the use of 3D printing technology is a solid sign that a company is engaging in activities eligible for R&D Tax Credits. Businesses that utilize this technology at any phase should consider maximizing the benefits offered by R&D Tax Credits.


United Launch Alliance, a leading force in rocket innovation, may soon be up for sale. This development is stirring significant attention and curiosity throughout the aerospace industry. ULA’s prestige and their connections with deep-space clients make their sale a highly coveted opportunity. The fortunate buyer will acquire well-developed rockets and the chance to utilize progressive manufacturing techniques that have the potential to reshape space systems production.

Original source


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