A record to be sure, and for those keeping track of the count Thales Alenia Space has now sent into orbit 79 metal parts made by additive manufacturing (3D printing) and 350 polymer tube supports for chemical propulsion systems.* These numbers are a combination of launches of the Telkom 3S, SGDC and KOREASAT-7 satellites, plus satellites in the Iridium Next constellation.
The adventure began in April 2015, with the first 3D-printed aluminum antenna support, sent into orbit on the Turkmen Alem MonacoSat satellite. Since then, all of the company’s telecommunications satellites use lightweight 3D-printed antenna supports and reflector fittings.
In mid-January 2017, with the successful launch of the first Iridium NEXT satellites, Thales Alenia Space also sent into orbit satellites with propulsion system tube supports, the first flight application of thermoplastic additive manufacturing.
Florence Montredon, Additive Manufacturing Technology Development manager at Thales Alenia Space shared that Thales Alenia Space will pursue on this way by manufacturing larger and larger parts using this process, which represent a real advance from the manufacturing standpoint. Their development efforts are now focusing on integrating several functions in a single part, such as mechanical, thermal and radio-frequency functions. The challenge lies as much in the design process as in the production technique per se.
Additive manufacturing provides real benefits for spaceborne products. For example, it allows designing and manufacturing single-piece structures, as opposed to a conventional manufacturing approach, which entails the assembly of several different parts to form a structure. The upshot is a significant reduction in weight, along with cost savings. The tube support perfectly illustrates the ability to replace several parts by a single-piece structure, thanks to additive manufacturing, while also introducing new functions.
Additive manufacturing also means greater design freedom and the absence of tooling, which makes it the perfect technology for complex parts, with curves, holes or cavities, that are produced in small runs or on a one-off basis.
*Out of the total of 79 parts, 47 have different designs and are used on the aforementioned satellites, where they carry out 13 different functions (some of these parts are design variants for a given function). The tube supports are made of a polymer and are all identical, with 35 used on each of the ten satellites launched to date.
** Thales Alenia Space generally focuses on metallic materials for this process, including aluminum and titanium. The most commonly used technique is laser beam melting (LBM), with a bed of metallic powder. One or several lasers progressively melt the powder, layer by layer, in a controlled atmosphere. This technology demands a high level of expertise to control the various design restrictions and the “printing” machine’s complex settings. Producing a part may take several hours or even days of continuous printing.