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From Prototyping to Production: 3D Printing for Space Comes into its Own

3D printing – once the domain of nerdy hobbyists – is gaining momentum across multiple industries including the satellite sector thanks to the efforts of NASA to advance 3D printing in space, as well as early commercial innovators. Today, antenna and propulsion rocket companies lead the charge to print fewer components on key systems using this innovative technique where successive layers of material are layered to produce parts.

Several of satellite’s top additive-manufacturing evangelists predict that 3D printing’s move to mainstream is not a question of if, but when. Some say it will be ubiquitous within the next five years, while others say mainstream status is already here.

“I think we’re still three to five years out from that watershed moment when it is ubiquitous on the platforms and places it makes sense,” says Michael Hollenbeck, CTO of Optisys, an antenna design company that specializes in the use of metal 3D printing. “It’s a disruptive technology that has the ability to add capabilities to small and large satellites that they otherwise would not be able to have.”

A 2019 SmarTech space report on 3D printing forecast positive growth in the market, finding that the value of additive manufactured parts – not the machines or software – was estimated to grow to $4.7 billion by 2027. In 2019, the global market for these parts reached nearly $1 billion. That figure is dramatically higher than the estimated market for 3D printer machines, services and software, which is expected to top $872 million by 2027. That’s because a little quantity of material with a 3D printer in space can produce very valuable parts, notes Davide Sher, senior analyst at SmarTech and the author of the report.

“The satellite industry is really benefiting from additive manufacturing,” says Sher, who also serves as co-founder and CEO of 3D Printing Business Media, now 3dpbm. “I think one of the reasons we are seeing a commercial space age is because 3D printing exists.”

Emile de Rijk, co-founder and CEO of SWISSto12, says that many are already using 3D printing – but are “secretive” about it. He claims most GEO satellites from big manufacturers already contain a lot of additive manufacturing parts. His firm is one the first companies to use additive manufacturing to print Radio Frequency (RF) antennas.

Jordan Noone, the co-founder and CTO of Relativity Space, a Los Angeles-based company developing 3D printers for rockets and eventually other aerospace applications, says his company is on track to put the world’s first fully printed rocket into orbit next year. Noone says that milestone will be a turning point when there will be “no denying” the technology is ready.

Relativity Space raised $140 million in investment backing last October – funds that are helping complete development of the Terran 1 3D printed rocket, which is set to launch next year.

The benefits to 3D printing parts instead of conventional manufacturing are numerous to the satellite sector – agile and organic designs can reduce the assembled part count, which can shave weight and time off systems going into orbit.

That’s particularly true for smaller launch vehicles, notes Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Jeff Haynes, senior manager of Advanced Programs who oversees his company’s additive manufacturing development.

The company began its metal additive manufacturing journey 12 year ago as it looked to reduce part count and improve performance. Today, the technology touches virtually all product lines, from flight-proven legacy engines like the RS-25, formerly known as the Space Shuttle Main Engine, or SSME, and the RL10 upper-stage engine, to the new lower-cost Bantam engine family, to the company’s work with the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) on hypersonic propulsion.

Aerojet Rocketdyne currently is building the propulsion components for NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion Crew Module that will carry humans to deep space. Leveraging additive manufacturing will help the builder achieve NASA’s cost targets, which Haynes estimates will equate to a 20% to 40% reduction in the engine’s price.

Haynes calls one assembly recently completed qualification testing on the engine “one of the most impressive parts we’ve put into 3D printing.” The “Pogo Assembly” component, which is spherical and the size of a beach ball, with multiple internal baffles, would normally take over a year to manufacture, but was completed in a month, Haynes says.

Designing Under New Rules

Additive manufacturing requires an entirely different process and mindset, the industry’s top 3D experts say.

“The rules for additive are vastly different than they are for subtractive, or traditional manufacturing,” says Hollenbeck, explaining that companies cannot take a design for a traditionally fabricated process and throw it on a 3D printer and expect it to work.

“It’s going to have worse performance than the traditional process because you didn’t pay attention to what 3D printers are good at doing,” he says. “3D printing allows us to condense a lot of complexity into a very small volume at a very light weight and be able to add material exactly where we want it to exist – leaving it out everywhere else.”

Understanding that allowed Optisys to develop entirely new rules for the weight to print these structures and the best way to design them from an electromagnetic standpoint. “You have to truly control the process – both design and fabrication,” Hollenbeck explains.

Creating an AM Standard

One of the keys to 3D printing becoming more easily adopted was work toward a standard. The standard, known as F3303, was released in 2018 and ensures that additive manufacturing steps are fixed and repeatable, which could help to overcome many of the challenges associated with the application and approval of 3D printed metal parts. Haynes served on the ASTM International’s advisory board on material and processes that established the standard.

“This didn’t exist before so it was really hard to identify requirements for a qualification or production program,” Haynes explains.

Overcoming Challenges, Building Buy-in

Today’s 3D creations for space applications resemble nothing of the angular and rigid components machined traditionally. Instead, additive-driven products feature curvatures and fluidity. They’re tailored, subtle, and lightweight.

Additionally, the “printed” metal microstructure is unique and requires a substantial amount of material property testing to ensure high quality products for aerospace applications. According to Haynes, a majority of the Aerojet Rocketdyne internal investment has supported this over the past 12 years to ensure the rocket and hypersonic propulsion systems operate as desired with the 3D-printed parts.

While it’s “wildly enabling in terms of your design freedom, there are restrictions in the 3D printing process,” cautions Haynes, pointing to internal cavities and low overhang angles in products as particularly challenging. Since 3D printing involves producing very thin layers at a time, sometimes the material can begin to curl from laser heat. “You have to develop a design from the bottom up,” he says.

Aerospace customers need time to fully buy in to 3D printing, de Rijk says, but he emphasizes that the technology is not the true hurdle to adoption.

“The challenges are no longer of a technical nature,” de Rijk says. “The challenges are getting everyone acquainted with the technology, setting up all the processes for qualification within the mainstream space companies and within subgroup space companies such that you evangelize the technology and show that is now ready to fly and is reliable.”

It’s success stories like the ability to print one piece through additive manufacturing that replaces 2,500 machined parts that convince companies, de Rijk adds. “When you print one piece, you spend a bit more time designing and inspecting that piece but that is nowhere near the time you would have to invest if you made a separate machined part in that quantity," he says.

Thales Alenia Space and SWISSto12 recently agreed to set up a novel supply chain of spacecraft waveguide solutions manufactured by SWISSto12 based on the Swiss company’s novel design approaches and proprietary additive manufacturing and surface treatment technologies.

Relativity Space’s CTO says people should try to see ways to embrace additive manufacturing by overcoming friction in adoption.

“People will often look at the technology and say, ‘It’s bad in this one specific way, therefore never use it,’” Noone says, noting that companies like his know that it’s always important to look at the trade-offs with a big-picture view. Sometimes taking a hit in performance is worth it if in order to gain speed and efficiency in the supply chain. “That takes a very company-level strategic view, not just on the factory floor,” he says.

Embracing Different Business Models

For all the exciting benefits of additive manufacturing for space, experts caution satellite companies not to view 3D printing as something they can casually pursue without careful thought. The technology requires new design approaches from conventional part manufacturing.

“Companies need to take a step back and not ask the question, ‘How do we print what we already designed?’ but instead ask, ‘How do we redesign to take advantage of the printing process?’” Hollenbeck notes.

Many companies are betting on 3D printing in a big way. Aerojet Rocketdyne, for example, acquired 3D Materials Technology last April to allow it to create a business unit that offers 3D printing services to aerospace companies.

Relativity Space’s CTO envisions his factory with industrial-sized 3D printers one day tackling other aerospace projects without having to build a new factory because of the technology’s innate flexibility.

“That’s the beauty of it – you can move very quickly between rocket sizes, but you also can go to a completely different industry because you are putting all that manufacturing complexity into digital automation,” Noone says. “So, one day we could surprise the world and have a commercial airline come out of our factory. The beginning of this decade we’ll be rolling out some surprises … because we can move that quickly.”

Noone says 3D printing will bring aerospace into the 21st century by allowing the industry to match the rate of speed at which the rest of the world is changing. He also says it will help humanity create a self-sustaining civilization off planet.

“Everyone in human exploration is trying to send more and more mass into orbit using super-heavy launch vehicle development,” he observes. While he says that work is important, printing technology offers a more efficient way to send more people up with less infrastructure. “It’s a much more effective strategy because you are leveraging resources you can either use or make on the journey, rather than taking everything with you from Earth.”

3D Printing at Heart of U.K. Smallsat Launch Provider Skyrora

Skyrora, the smallsat launch provider based in Edinburgh, Scotland, aims to reduce the cost of space launch using a host of innovative technologies, with 3D printing as the foundation of its responsive launch model. All three of its lower-emission hydrogen peroxide and kerosene-powered engines are 3D printed.

“Skyrora adopted many technologies and 3D printing is definitely a cornerstone,” says Dr. Jack James Marlow, engineering manager.

Additive manufacturing reduces mass with fewer parts, making it more reliable and higher performing. “For every kilogram you decrease on the engine, you increase the performance of the whole vehicle – it’s a game changer,” he says.

The Scottish startup is gaining a lot of attention in a part of Europe not known for being a space hub. The United Kingdom currently hopes to capture 10% of the global space market and that hinges heavily on cost-effective launch.

In the first few months of 2020, Skyrora, located 30 minutes by train to Glasgow, the heart of U.K. satellite manufacturing, completed 21 test fires of its engines, which were all 3D printed. The company in February test validated its 30kN flight weight rocket engine, unveiling Fife as its test facility location in central Scotland. The flight test clears another hurdle on the path to certification of Skyrora’s 11-meter-tall, 100-kilogram Skylark sub-orbital launch vehicle.

Skyrora currently has over 20 letters of intent signed with satellite customers internationally in Australia, Europe, and the U.K., with their next objective to get a launch agreement in place, the company said. In the next five to six years it expects to build and launch a total of 100 engines per year, which will support 10 launches a year.

“We anticipate by 2026 we’ll be at full production and 3D printing will enable that,” Marlow says. “What the internet did for information, 3D printing can do for manufacturing.” VS