In the CAMX Live! opening general session, Charles Kuehmann hit on themes that resonated with the room full of composites and advanced materials professionals. As vice president of materials engineering for both SpaceX and Tesla Motors, Kuehmann talked about the companies’ missions – displacing the combustion engine, as Tesla strives to do, and bringing colonists to Mars, which is SpaceX’s goal. While these may seem like lofty goals, the focal points to get there are deceivingly simple – and ones most industry professionals can likely benefit from at their own companies. They include placing an emphasis on material selection, sustainability, lightweighting, design engineering and collaboration.
Kevin Barnett, president and CEO of Core Molding Technologies and ACMA Chairman of the Board, reflected on Kuehmann’s message after CAMX Live! “Many of us may not be in aerospace or automotive, but it’s more about possibilities – creating opportunities to do things that maybe you hadn’t thought of before.”
Material Selection – Whether designing the latest Tesla automobile or a spaceship, material selection is key. SpaceX is currently developing BFR, a fully reusable vehicle designed to orbit earth, as well as travel to the moon and Mars. “Where we are going with the BFR is a complete and utter leap from [previous SpaceX] technologies,” said Kuehmann, “and it’s going to require a lot of materials technology to make that happen.”
The company is starting to build the first pieces of hardware for the 118-meter tall, 9-meter diameter space vehicle. The first layup made for the BFR system was a 9-meter carbon fiber cylinder. “Not only is it a challenge to make something this big. This is a composite that is going to operate with liquid oxygen and liquid methane, so the systems have to be compatible with those types of temperatures and the oxygen environment itself,” said Kuehmann. “There’s a lot work actively going on developing these material systems, their processes and methods to lay these [materials] down, cure them and make a high-strength composite.”
Sustainability – SpaceX is not simply concerned with building a rocket to reach Mars; it’s also focused on creating a completely self-sustaining colony so people can live there. Material and component recycling and reuse will be crucial for life on Mars. “Everything that we build or make we are going to have to reuse because it’s very expensive to bring anything else out there with us,” said Kuehmann. “So things like 3D printing, flexible manufacturing and recycling strategies are very, very important, and they are all things we’re working on.”