How Elon Musk inspired 23-year-old Andy Kieatiwong to 3D-print rocket engines

Cara Waters

“When I was just four years old I watched Star Wars: A New Hope and I knew since then I wanted to build spaceships and rockets when I grew up and really push the boundaries of space,” says Andy Kieatiwong. 

Kieatiwong is not the first kid to have these sort of dreams but he’s turned them into reality with his start-up Additive Rocket Corporation, following in the foot steps of tech mogul Elon Musk.

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The Aussie space race

The 23-year-old American co-founder of ARC is in Adelaide for three months as part of the TechStars defence accelerator.

Andy Kieatiwong is the co-founder of Additive Rocket Corporation. Andy Kieatiwong is the co-founder of Additive Rocket Corporation. 

He’s not the only person with his eyes turned skyward with Adelaide hosting the International Aeronautical Congress this week and the government announcing the establishment of Australia’s first space agency this week. 

Musk is also set to touch down in Australia this week. 

Australia’s space industry is estimated to be worth as much as $4 billion per year and currently employs about 11,500 workers and Kieatiwong’s experience shows space is not just the realm of big businesses. 

Rocket testing via a barbecue chicken fundraiser

Kieatiwong’s roommate at university, Kyle Adriany, was similarly obsessed with rockets and the pair founded a space club which received grant of $US5000 from NASA to do work with rockets. 

Andy Kieatiwong explains his next generation rockets to South Australian premier Jay Weatherill at TechStars in Adelaide. Andy Kieatiwong explains his next generation rockets to South Australian premier Jay Weatherill at TechStars in Adelaide. 

“That was our first big jump into the field of propulsion and we decided to 3D-print a rocket engine out of metal,” Kieatiwong says.

When an extra $US2000 was needed the club ran a fundraiser at university selling barbecue chickens to cover the costs of the rest of the test systems of the rocket. 

Andy Kieatiwong was inspired to create his rocket start-up after interning at Elon Musk's Space X. Andy Kieatiwong was inspired to create his rocket start-up after interning at Elon Musk’s Space X.  Photo: AP

“We were the first students in the world to design, print and test a small liquid rocket engine in 2013,” says Kieatiwong.

Interning at Space X 

An internship at Elon Musk’s Space X followed and it was a turning point for Kieatiwong. 

In Australia and here in Adelaide there is a perfect storm brewing in terms of the climate here where people are thinking about innovation and start-ups in a different way and that is very exciting for us.

Andy Kieatiwong, rocket designer.

He spotted a gap in the market after realising most companies adopting 3D metal printing were being “very conservative” by limiting themselves to printing parts that could be traditionally manufactured.

“They weren’t taking the leap of faith into redesigning components for 3D printing which is heat transfer and reducing weight,” he says. “The space industry is slow to adopt new technology as they prefer to use tried and true techniques so a lot of it reflects the Apollo era. There is a lot of testing and certification for every component of your vehicle.”

Andy Kieatiwong holding one of his next-generation rockets. Andy Kieatiwong holding one of his next-generation rockets. 

Kieatiwong says the highly regulated nature of the space industry means it is not as innovative as you might expect. 

“3D printing gives engineers the freedom to design for the most optimal shape versus having to design for manufacturing,” he says. “We had this idea and I actually went into my internship with Space X with this idea in mind and it wasn’t until after I left Space X that I saw it was something very commercially viable.”

Making the leap into business

A month after leaving Space X Kieatiwong and Adriany started ARC to build next generation rockets. 

“We realised a great barrier to entry for some space companies is building and testing rocket engines,” he says. “We focused on reinventing the rocket engine from the bottom up and boiling it down to its core functionality which is building fluid and transferring heat.”

Kieatiwong and Adriany funded the start-up using $US100,000 they cobbled together from savings, their university food and living allowances and money from winning pitch competitions.

“I became a very exquisite chef of instant noodles,” Kieatiwong says.

Orders in the pipeline

The sacrifice paid off with ARC receiving a $120,000 investment from TechStars and Kieatiwong says this backing gave him the momentum to raise a supplemental seed round of $350,000.

ARC’s next generation rockets are garnering interest from companies like satellite manufacturers which Kieatiwong says form the basis of its manufacturing pipeline.

The typical turnaround time to build a rocket takes about three to four months but ARC’s additive manufacturing process and use of 3D printing means the start-up can produce a rocket in less than a week at a fraction of the cost. 

With the TechStars program finishing in October Kieatiwong and Adriany will have to decide whether to return to the United States or stay in Australia. 

“In Australia and here in Adelaide there is a perfect storm brewing in terms of the climate here where people are thinking about innovation and start-ups in a different way and that is very exciting for us,” Kieatiwong says. “There is a really optimistic view on investment and innovation here.”  

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