Erik Palitsch spent a decade working with Elon Musk at SpaceX, running several of the company’s most important rocket engine development programs. But that was just a warm-up for this admitted space nerd whose next act is no less ambitious when it comes to pushing the proverbial envelope of what’s possible.
For the last four years, Palitsch and his team at Freeform have been developing technology that will allow organizations to use metal 3D printing to manufacture high-quality, metal parts at mass production scale — something that was only a pipedream when he was still back at SpaceX.
The rap against 3D printing for mass production has always been that it is too slow and too expensive. What’s more, the current state of the art in the industry is “trial and error,” so it is nearly impossible to consistently produce high-quality parts.
Mission impossible? That’s the same refrain Palitsch has heard time and again during his career. “For years, some of the smartest people on the planet told us that we couldn’t land a rocket. That a propulsive landing wasn’t possible,” he said. “Even if you could, they said, you won’t be able to reuse it. We proved the “impossible” at SpaceX, and we’re bringing that same mentality to scaling metal 3D printing.”
In fact, by deploying a combination of advanced sensors, artificial intelligence, and a large number of lasers seamlessly working together, Freeform’s system actively controls the melt process in real-time and makes instantaneous adjustments to prevent defects, resulting in the rapid manufacture of flawless metal parts at a small fraction of the cost.
We spoke with Palitsch about why he stepped out on his own to become an entrepreneur, as well as the transformative potential of the breakthrough technique and what it will mean for the future of 3D printing.
Q: Given your MS degree in aeronautics and astronautics, and the double major in aeronautical and mechanical engineering, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that you’ve been into space since way back when. Am I right?
That’s true. My path was interesting. There are no engineers in my family. My mom says that when I was a kid, I always wore astronaut pajamas. We also lived in Florida for a short period in the late eighties and took several trips to Cape Canaveral. I remember thinking at the time how NASA was awesome and that it would be so cool to be an astronaut and travel to space. It’s probably fair to say that I was kind of a space nerd.
Q: Was the idea all along to go into a career connected with space exploration, or was that happenstance?
I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an engineer initially. In college, I became a certified EMT, and I took the prerequisites for med school because I had a lot of interest in medicine and was thinking about becoming an ER doctor. However, after taking a few engineering classes, I realized that it was my calling. It’s hard to think of myself as anything but an engineer now in hindsight.
Q: But after graduating, you still wound up working at NASA. What put you on that path?
I received an internship to work at the Marshall Space Flight Center when I was a junior in college, and that set my trajectory after graduation when I was offered a job at NASA.
Q: Can you tell me about the origin of your romance with the idea of space exploration?
I like to think about deep things — like how large the universe is or what’s inside a black hole. That stuff is mind-blowing. When I was a kid, I remember reading how Albert Einstein would visualize problems and worked out the physics by going through visualization exercises in his head. I always tried to do that. I’m obviously not Albert Einstein and can’t visualize the detailed physics and math at his level. But I think that was one of the draws. This mysterious unknown — there was a mystique to the science and physics of it, the unnaturalness of it — and the danger of it since everything in space basically wants to kill you. I’ve always been someone who really enjoys solving hard, complicated problems and especially problems that other folks think aren’t solvable or are unfathomable. I love that stuff.
Q: Is that a trait you’ve always had?
When I was growing up, it would get me into trouble. I would take anything I could get my hands on apart to try to figure out how it worked. I remember one time my parents popped a movie into the VCR only for it to “eat” the tape and then realized that I had taken the VCR apart, tried to figure out how it worked, and then hadn’t put it back together properly. Oops.
Q: But that’s also the sort of desire to tinker that makes for a good engineer, doesn’t it?
I think people who have worked closely with me would say that one of the things I’m pretty good at is applying first principles and engineering intuition to solve extremely complex problems. I think both are the product of being intellectually curious my entire life, as well as spending over a decade at SpaceX designing, building, and testing rocket engines with exceptionally smart and talented folks. I would also say that I have a strong work ethic. I wasn’t a naturally gifted student. I was a good student, but I was always driven to work harder because I felt everyone around me was smarter and more talented than I was.
Q: How much does intuition figure into being a good or a great engineer?
In my honest opinion, it’s everything. If you understand the broader physics involved in a problem, you can rapidly assess what’s physically possible and quickly converge on a solution when others with less intuition may struggle even to get started. A broad understanding of the physics also generally results in more creative or elegant solutions to problems.
Q: Fast-forward to your time working at SpaceX. You were involved in several key projects over the course of more than a decade there. How do you think that prepared you for what came later in your career?
I worked directly with Elon for my entire career at SpaceX. I ran the Merlin engine program for Falcon 9. Later, I took over the Raptor program and was one of the principal architects of the Starship vehicle and the development of the Mars colonization plan. Watching SpaceX grow from a 50-person company to 300 to a thousand, to 2,000 to 8,000 people, and then the countless hours debating first principles with Elon and all the other smart folks I worked with prepared me in so many important ways. I learned how to solve problems by looking at them from true first principles, how to empower people to make decisions, and then be accountable for the results. I figured out how to scale the team and company without losing the fast-paced culture and mission-driven DNA.
Q: First Principles Thinking…can you define that?
What are the underlying physics of a problem? Say that you want to create a reusable rocket or an automated metal printing factory. Does physics, as we understand it today, support that or not? Does physics allow me to do it? That’s where we would always start. That was the environment I grew up in, and I think that it certainly influenced me.
Q: Clearly, Elon was a big part of your career.
I tell people that I was raised in the school of Elon [laughing]. I was fortunate to have been a part of some of the most exciting growth years of the company. I saw the decisions; I saw the ideation. I was always part of the ideation phase when he would tell us to figure out some seemingly impossible thing, and then I would see these crazy ideas come to fruition several years later. We landed and reused rockets when everyone in the aerospace community said over and over that it wasn’t possible.
Q: What did that experience teach you?
That anything is possible. You must look in the mirror every day and say we are going to succeed, no matter what happens. There is no other option.
Q: When did you become convinced it was possible to create a manufacturing-as-a-service company?
I saw the transformative potential of this technology while leading the Raptor engine program, where we were controlling rocket engine physics in a way that was not possible before by leveraging 3D printing. We were able to create extremely intricate and complex geometry inside the rocket engine, where, as you can imagine, there are a lot of complicated things going on. Not only that, but we were also able to finally measure things inside the engine that we had been trying to understand and predict through simulation and models in software for decades. To say that this accelerated our level of understanding of how the system was working and, by extension, our development pace would be a massive understatement. With that said, Elon hated buying expensive and slow 3D printers. He was also building a company to colonize Mars and not to develop 3D printing technology. It was somewhat easy to conclude that customers of this technology don’t want to buy and operate machines but just want high-quality parts.
Q: When it comes to 3D printing on a mass production level, there’s no shortage of critics who say it’s still too slow, costs too much, and can’t consistently make high-quality parts. Why are you optimistic they’ll have to eat their words?
A few reasons. I’ve said this a few times already, but for years, some of the smartest people on the planet told us that we couldn’t land a rocket. That a propulsive landing wasn’t possible. Even if you could, they said, you couldn’t reuse it. It’s not that SpaceX just got lucky. Why were we confident? Because when we did the math and looked at the physics, it was clear that we didn’t have to break any laws of physics to do it. Was it hard? Of course. We trusted in the math and physics and rapidly tried and failed over and over again until we nailed it.
Back to metal printing, when you look at the physics of what’s happening in the printing process, there isn’t a good explanation for why you can’t print significantly faster. The primary reason current systems on the market are so slow is because they need to slow the process down or it will break, and the systems are not intelligent. My co-founders and I had a hypothesis that if you measure and control the physics of the melting process in real time, you can theoretically print orders of magnitude faster and not produce any defects. We went out and recruited Tasso Lappas who was the CTO at Velo3D. Tasso is regarded as a world expert in the metal printing industry. He confirmed our hypotheses and unbeknownst to us had been saying similar things for years but had been unable to convince anyone to bite off solving this extremely difficult problem. The challenge was that we needed to make the machine extremely perceptive and smart. And by that I mean we had to give it the ability to measure and control the things that were important to the physics of the printing process. Luckily, we had guys like Tasso with decades of real-world physics experience to help guide the process.
Q: Where are we on this journey? How far away are we before it will be possible to mainstream the production of these parts at mass production scale?
We’re starting to scale production with select customers with our first high-volume system, albeit still a “prototype” production system. SpaceX owns something like 40 or 50 metal printing machines. Our single production prototype can exceed the printed volume of every machine that they own. From a technology, de-risking perspective, we’re there. Our production prototype can print significantly faster, by a significant margin, than any other system on the planet today. And remember, this is just a prototype. Our next-gen platform will be an order of magnitude, or more, faster still.
Q: Your website talks about parts as a service from idea to production in days. How close are you to giving customers the ability to rapidly take an idea and produce it at scale?
It really depends on the volume of that “scale.” We’ve delivered parts to customers in less than 24 hours in an industry where your lead time is usually eight weeks or more. That’s pretty darn good. We have the capability of our current system to go from idea to mass production in days or weeks for select materials and customers. Our goal is to be able to do this seamlessly for any customer across a variety of materials and industries, and we’re about 1–2 years away from that. Remember, we’re a team of about 40 people today, so it’s kind of shocking how much we’ve accomplished, given how small we are, and it’s only taken us a couple of years. It really speaks to how clear the vision is and the quality of people we’ve been able to attract. I’m excited to see the transformative things we’re going to accomplish over the next couple of years.
Q: Let’s segue to talk about your role as a company founder. Has this experience been harder or easier than you expected? What sorts of adjustments have you had to make?
When I left SpaceX, a lot of my friends thought I was crazy. Why was I leaving? I had this amazing job running Raptor, and I was one of two people architecting the Mars effort. And, for some reason, Elon had tolerated me for over a decade [laughing]. But one of the primary motivators for me to start a company was that I wanted an even bigger challenge that involved solving exceptionally difficult technical problems as well as all the complexities and challenges associated with starting and building a successful company. I’m a technical person at heart, but at my core, I thrive, and I’m the happiest when I’m learning and growing. I really do enjoy the challenges of running a startup. Everything from making sure we don’t run out of money to hiring the right folks to interfacing with investors to firefighting daily. It’s the ultimate test of what I’m capable of doing. I believe in betting on yourself and then relentlessly pursuing success every single day.
Q: How do you approach your role as the person in charge when it comes to motivating your people and building a company culture?
I am not someone who puts his feet up on the desk and tells people to go get my lunch. I do not have a fancy corner office. I don’t walk around thinking that I’m in charge. I try to be approachable, transparent, and lead by example. I regularly roll my sleeves up and work side-by-side with folks to solve problems. I’ll stay until midnight to help folks troubleshoot things or be the first one to volunteer to come in on a weekend if needed. I try to foster a positive culture and be the leader that I would want to follow if I worked for Freeform. I’ve learned in my career that people will follow you if you inspire them and if they respect you. I try to inspire folks and earn their respect each day.
I feel very fortunate to have been at SpaceX at a time when we were making history. The work was exceptionally hard, and the hours were painfully long, but I’ve never felt anything like the sense of achievement I felt when we successfully launched the first Falcon 9 or when we landed the first Falcon 9. I had worked so incredibly hard on the project, years of hundred-hour weeks and external people saying we were wasting our time, and then it worked. Part of my drive at Freeform is to give the folks that work here a similar experience to the one I had at SpaceX. They are a part of something extremely special that is going to transform industries, and when we succeed, it’s going to be extremely satisfying and special. When things were difficult in the early days of SpaceX, a friend of mine used to say that these are the fun times, and I thought he was crazy. But the reality is that they were the fun times because to truly feel a sense of accomplishment, you need to have worked. If it was easy, everyone would do it, and it wouldn’t mean very much. I regularly tell people here that today may have been a tough day, but these are the days you’re going to remember and cherish when we succeed.
Q: What has the process taught you about leadership?
Life is a journey, and so I’m learning how to be a better leader each day. Some days I think I do a decent job, and other days I reflect on my mistakes and try to do better the next day. I’m a flawed human, just like everyone else.
One thing I’ve learned about myself is that I’m not particularly good at recognizing folks’ achievements. We didn’t do a lot of this at SpaceX, so it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’ve tried to do more of this at Freeform, and I’ve found that, somewhat surprisingly, most people don’t want money or stock when they do something amazing; they just want to be recognized for their hard work and achievements from time to time. We win as a team and lose as a team, and it’s my job to make sure I set a positive example and consistently live the morals and values I preach.
Q: So how do you create that culture that’s invigorating but doesn’t burn your people out after a year?
Honestly, this is hard. You clearly want committed employees that are willing to go the extra mile because success is not guaranteed in a startup, and ultimately, we need to defy the odds to succeed. I always tell the team that this is a marathon and not a sprint, and I encourage each person to find their own personal balance so that they don’t burn themselves out. This is another place where being in the trenches alongside the team goes a long way. It also allows me to keep my finger on the pulse of how folks are doing so I can encourage them to take time off if needed.
People at Freeform also know that I don’t care how many hours they work; I care about meeting milestones and getting things done. We very carefully hired the folks we have, and we want them here for a long time. We do everything we can to try to create an environment where folks can have a healthy work-life balance, but there is no secret recipe for how to do this that I’m aware of.
Q: What have you learned about yourself?
That I can’t do this alone. Yes, I’m the CEO, but I remind people here all the time that we win together and we lose together. It’s a team effort, and every single person is important.
Q: OK, time for the getaway questions. What is your favorite movie?
Armageddon. I used to watch it repeatedly when I was younger. It drove my parents crazy, but I just loved something about oil driller astronauts traveling to space to save the world.
Q: Is there a motto or saying that reflects your approach to the job?
I already mentioned one — we win as a team, and we lose as a team. The second, as I’ve also mentioned, is that I lead by example. I won’t ever ask someone to do something that I wouldn’t be willing to do myself.