Solid rocket motors, R&D, and consulting
Founded in Denver in 1958, Estes Industries established Penrose, Colorado, as the "Model Rocket Capital of the World" after moving there in 1961. After a labyrinthine series of mergers and acquisitions, the business again became an independent company based in Penrose upon an ownership change in 2018.
While Estes Industries is known for its leading line of model rockets, management saw opportunities in traditional aerospace and defense, and spun off a sister company in Estes Energetics in 2021.
"Estes Industries had started an aerospace division to do commercial and government work," explains Kulling. The realization was that there is a market there for that type of work, but running that type of business -- a business that serves commercial and government customers -- is very different than running a company that serves hobby and education customers."
Kulling, who joined Estes Energetics after working in aerospace manufacturing and strategy for Bell, Aurora Flight Sciences, and other companies, says the move was largely tied to an opening in the market. "If you look at solid rocket motors, there are not many suppliers in that industry," he explains. "There are really two large prime contractors. One is now owned by Northrop Grumman; that's formerly Orbital ATK. The other is Aerojet Rocketdyne; Lockheed Martin has announced they're trying to acquire Aerojet Rocketdyne. . . . Really, that's just a continuation of 25 years of mergers in the solid rocket motor industry."
Some smaller players round out the market, he adds. "We are trying to position ourselves between those smaller players and the large primes, to be a responsive and agile partner for commercial and defense customers that need solid rocket motors," says Kulling, citing industry needs for custom motors, R&D, and integration.
The first target: "tactical-sized" solid rocket motors for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), missiles, parachute extraction systems, and other small aircraft. "Some of those systems need custom engineering, custom design, and special features," says Kulling. "We're really stepping up the business development effort."
The road map calls for some product development before going to market as soon as late 2021. "We are developing some standardized components," explains Kulling. "The propellants in solid rocket motors are long lead in terms of development and certification, so we're focusing some of our effort on that . . . to quickly be able to provide a solid rocket motor."
Instead of the black powder used in hobby rocket motors, Estes Energetics will use composite propellants like ammonium perchlorate and powdered metal and other advanced formulations. "It's really a different chemistry used in the propellant," says Kulling.
Kulling calls R&D a pillar to the company's strategy, describing ongoing "internal research and development projects that will feed into government-funded research."
Additive manufacturing is a big part of that. "There's commercialization potential specifically around additive energetics," says Kulling. "Think of it as a parallel to all of the 3D printing and additive manufacturing you see in other types of materials, whether that's plastic or metal -- there's research doing that with energetic materials, materials that react."
Estes Energetics is also able to leverage the resources of its sister company and its nearly 70 employees to navigate the industry's regulatory framework. "This is a heavily regulated industry for a number of reasons," says Kulling. "One, we're dealing in certain cases with defense technology. More importantly, we're dealing with hazardous materials that are used in creating solid rocket motors. So having that partnership with Estes Industries and having the use of their facilities here, we have everything in place to deal with those regulatory aspects: We can handle hazardous materials, we have a testing facility, we have the manufacturing facilities. Even though the technology is different than what's used for hobby rocket motors, there are similarities with a lot of the facilities and equipment "
The plan is to manufacture in Penrose initially with Estes Industries' in-house machine shop and casting and mixing equipment, but Kulling says Estes Energetics could contract out some production in the longer term. "There are certain steps we might outsource -- certain machining steps, inspection-type work that's very specialized -- locally here in Colorado," says Kulling. "We've had no trouble finding suppliers locally."
Challenges: Kulling alludes to standard "new company" challenges. "On the defense side, the sales cycle is very long," he adds.
Opportunities: Kulling sees an opportunity to leverage emerging technologies, and additive manufacturing is at the top of the list. "Additive energetics is an emerging technology that has a lot of potential," he says. "The industry as a whole is still trying to find the right commercial application for that."
Needs: "Talent," says Kulling. "Designing rocket motors requires some specialized talent, especially around energetic chemists and chemical engineers. It's a subfield of chemistry in terms of the propellants that we work with."
He adds, "In addition to the core team that we have here in Penrose, we work with an orbit of consultants that work with us on specific projects and proposals. That's how we bring in specialized talent when we need someone, but not full-time."