Having secured £7.6m through Europe's largest ever seed funding round for a space tech company, Cardiff-based Space Forge has its sights firmly set on out-of-this-world manufacturing.
When you are trying to manufacture materials and products that offer game-changing levels of performance and efficiency, the Earth’s atmosphere, temperature and gravity all present different challenges. In space though, there is no gravity, it’s a pure vacuum and extreme temperature changes can be achieved by harnessing the power of the Sun.
But manufacturing in space is a non-starter for many organisations. That’s where Space Forge with its ForgeStar™ Platform and Microgravity as a service offering comes in.
To find out more about the firm and its incredible plans, The Manufacturer’s James Devonshire sat down with Space Forge’s CEO and co-founder Joshua Western.
How did the Space Forge concept come to life?
JW: Great question – we set up Space Forge to leverage the space environment way beyond how it is currently used in order to help Earth. In-space manufacturing is actually quite an old concept, first having been trialled in the 1970s. But the lack of infrastructure available in space today (only the International Space Station being routinely available) means that there’s no way to scale the impact producing impossible materials in space can have on Earth. We saw that if you could provide both scalable platforms to produce these materials, and a way to bring them home, you could have an enormous positive impact on industry back on Earth. We’ve identified niche materials for markets ranging from telecommunications to renewable energy. Our goal is to be the world’s first truly carbon negative space company.
Andrew and I were working together at a large European satellite company. We used to work together on totally new space concepts to secure funding for their development. After a couple of years of working together we thought, actually, why don’t we try this outside big corporate. For the first 18 months or so we were working in a garage and on a fold-out desk in a flat developing prototypes and writing grant proposals. In March 2020 we closed our first funding – £500k, the same week the UK went into lockdown. Almost all our growth has happened during restrictions and we’ve really paved the way in developing hardware while remote working.
Space Forge’s Joshua Western, CEO and Co-Founder, and Andrew Bacon, CTO and Co-Founder. Image courtesy of Space Forge
When can we expect to see something ‘manufactured in space’ for the first time?
JW: In-space manufacturing, at least on an experimental level, has been happening since the 1970s. America’s Sky Lab, the US Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station all had or have the ability to support the development of novel materials and products. The success of some of these experiments even decades ago provided us with a lot of insight into the potential opportunity.
That said, aboard the ForgeStar platform, our scalable space-factory, we’ll be returning space manufactured products as early as next year. We are planning to commence monthly delivery by 2025, and weekly to daily by the end of the decade to meet demand.
Will the manufacturing process involve humans, robots, both?
JW: Going to space has three main benefits above manufacturing on Earth. These are microgravity, high purity vacuum, and access to near-absolute zero without the need for cryogenics. But the fourth benefit we don’t talk about is getting away from all the humans. We tend to be the biggest root cause for errors and impurities in manufacturing processes. Aboard the International Space Station for example there are lots of manufacturing procedures you are not allowed to conduct because of humans on the station. At the same time, every movement they do, every switch flick, experiment handling and so on, causing tiny micro-vibrations that disrupt the long-term quality of microgravity you can experience. We are totally focused on keeping humans involved in the manufacturing of space products on the ground helping to control the processes and robotics we have on our platform.
A render of the ForgeStar platform, Space Forge’s scalable space-factory. Image courtesy of Space Forge.
How exactly will Microgravity as a Service work?
JW: Spending on microgravity research alone fluctuates between $1-$2bn annually. But we remain constrained by the bottleneck of availability on the International Space Station. You can be waiting up to 5 years to dock your experiment, most industrial R&D cycles need to work a lot faster than that. Our Microgravity as a Service offering helps accelerate access to the space environment, and most importantly, return from it. We are planning to launch research within as little time as 6 months from first customer interaction to flight. Our service offers much higher quality access to space than is possible with the current infrastructure available. At the end of a customer’s experiment we then return them with our new re-entry technology. Our technology is non-ablative, so it experiences a much gentler ride home, meaning we can handle much more fragile and unstable research than what’s currently possible.
Won’t it be cost prohibitive to many firms? With that in mind, who are your target customers?
JW: Yes and no, even a few years ago the cost of leveraging this research was much higher. In the time Space Forge has been operating, the average cost of launch has come down from $30,000/kg (£22,155/kg) to $5,000/kg (£3,692/kg). While the cost of launch has improved, so has satellite technology. What used to take a ton to accomplish can now be done in a few kilos. The smartphone in your pocket has more processing power than the computer aboard Apollo 11 for example. We have two main customer bases, those who need the ForgeStar platform for research, and those who need it for the high value materials we can produce. You are absolutely right that these materials are costly, but the performance improvements, system efficiencies and mass reductions they enable in high value infrastructure – our energy grids, aircraft, telecom infrastructure – are so significant that a customer’s return on investment can be as short as six months from deployment.
What does the future hold for Space Forge?
JW: We are gearing up for our first mission this year. But we’ve already started on the development of our next generation platform offering much greater production capacity so we can meet our customer needs on Earth. Space Forge is already on the hunt for its next facility as well. Our original plan was to be 20 people in 2022, we are already 27 and likely to be double that again within 12 months.
Our flagship and the industry’s premier event, Digital Manufacturing Week, will be held in Liverpool (14-18 November). Might we see some of the Space Forge team in attendance?
JW: Is that an invite? If so, certainly!
*header image courtesy of Shutterstock