X-Bow Systems last week received a $17.8 million contract from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to mature and optimize the company’s additive manufacturing technology for solid rocket motor propellants to improve affordability and speed production to meet Air Force needs.

The work under the new three-year contract builds on the New Mexico-based start-up’s delivery in June 2022 of a rocket factory in-a-box Pathfinder 1, X-Bow’s low-cost mobile energetics factory demonstration unit.

X-Bow will examine how it can incorporate digital engineering and design methodologies into its manufacturing processes, Jason Hundley, the company’s CEO, told Defense Daily

on Sept. 29.

“This contract is about taking our existing manufacturing technology and working with the Air Force to focus on the time variables, what it takes to get through design to a test stand to potentially a product,” Hundley said.

X-Bow will be working with AFRL officials on-site at Edwards AFB in California experimenting and testing with different formulations and working through many design cycles, he said, adding that a lot of time will be spent on the “development qualification testing hypotheses and going through that rapidly with AFRL to basically prove that our methodology can be much quicker and much more affordable than the existing methodologies and existing production processes.”

In addition to propellants, X-Bow is developing solid rocket motors and launch vehicles. In June, the company successfully conducted the second test launch of its Bolt Rocket. Hundley said the company’s core technology is “chemistry agnostic” and will work in solid rocket motor applications from two-inches in diameter to more than 60 inches.

X-Bow is hoping to do a complementary effort with AFRL under the Air Force’s Strategic Funding Increase program, often called STRATFI, that will focus on detailed design of solid rocket motors for Air Force applications, Hundley said. The company has submitted a work proposal for the STRATFI effort that is under evaluation.

“We are focusing our efforts around the primary pain and pressure points where the Air Force sees their solid rocket motor needs,” he said.

X-Bow was founded in 2016 but only came out of stealth mode in spring 2022. The company has financed its operations through venture capital and government research and development contracts.

Hundley had hoped that by now X-Bow would be ramping up production on at least one program but has been “surprised at sometimes how slow things move, even when things are identified as a crisis.” The ongoing war in Ukraine has shown that the U.S. defense industrial base is challenged with surging production, particularly for various missiles and munitions, many of which rely on tactical solid rocket motors.

Production contracts with longer-term revenue horizons are crucial for startup companies to get beyond the proverbial “valley of death.” X-Bow is currently in the middle area of that valley, he said.

Hundley is expecting some “announcements in the near future” around more mature programs that will put the company “square outside the valley of death and you can scale and really get into production.” He added, “And so, our number one focus is program execution.”