ULA Launch
Rockets could soon leave Earth's atmosphere equipped with parts made by 3D printers. Here, an Atlas 5 ULA (United Launch Alliance) rocket carrying a satellite for the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Reuters/Gene Blevins

United Launch Alliance has announced a new plan to print over 100 flight-ready components for its Vulcan rocket with 3D printers. The company announced its next generation rocket last week, though its now clear that the design and production process will also test 3D printing technology.

ULA is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin created to build NASA rockets, satellites and Air Force vehicles. It's already created Atlas and Delta rockets and, starting with the Vulcan, flight components produced by 3D printers will be part of the design process from the beginning.

“We have a long list of [parts] candidates to evaluate - - over 100 polymer parts we're considering and another 50 or so metal parts we're considering,” Greg Arend, program manager for additive manufacturing at ULA, told Computer World Monday, adding that 3D printing means ULA's quality control process won't be “held hostage by other companies who have other priorities...We can control our destiny better by bringing that work in house.”

The 3D printing idea is so significant because ULA thinks it will help reduce costs for the Vulcan. The rocket launch (tenetaively scheduled for 2019) is expected to cost near $100 million, down from about $225 million today. Using parts produced by 3D printers helps shave off an estimated one million dollars on manufacturing costs.