A version of this article appears in the August 4 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.
For additive manufacturing,Space Systems started with small parts, mainly brackets used to support sensors and other instruments inside spacecraft.
Within the next three years, however, the company expects more than half of its A2100 satellite bus to be built through additive manufacturing, a revolutionary fabrication process that promises drastically reduced hardware development costs and production-cycle times.
Even without the benefits of so-called 3-D printing, the A2100 has seen a decrease in parts count by up to 60% in some subsystems, related to a technical refresh that has been ongoing since early 2013.
“On the antenna reflectors alone there were 3,600 manual operations, and that [number will be] going to zero on the new platform,” says Richard Ambrose, executive vice president of the Denver-based company.
In parallel, however, Ambrose says they are working toward identifying ways to save money and time through additive manufacturing of key technologies incorporated into the A2100 space bus. For the moment, the percentage is low—less than 10%.
“But my goal is to have over 50% of the structures 3-D-printed within two to three years,” Ambrose said in an interview on the sidelines of the Farnborough air show last month.
Already at least a dozen 3-D-printed brackets are flying in space aboard’s Juno mission, a Lockheed Martin-built solar-powered spacecraft launched in 2011 on a six-year journey to the Jupiter system.
Ambrose says it can take 30 hr. to machine some brackets by hand, although additive manufacturing can produce 300 of the same part in a single day, all of which are as structurally sound.
For now, the A2100 propulsion system is the major focus of the company’s additive manufacturing efforts, which aim to reduce production of fuel tanks from 18 months to a matter of weeks.
“I can print half a tank in three hours,” Ambrose says, adding that the company has already pressure-tested one such article, with plans to conduct a full-qualification burst test this year.
The next step, he says, is an electronic chassis; today, these are machined from aluminum.
“The alloys are different in 3-D printing, so we have to work through that and make sure we’re getting the quality right in the structure,” he says. “I’m told they’re close to a solution.”
Ambrose notes other space hardware manufacturers are pushing the envelope of printed hardware, notably, Rocketdyne and (SpaceX), all of which are responding in part to defense spending reductions that have opened the door to technological innovation, resulting in new materials and techniques that can reduce production time and lower costs.
To that end, Ambrose says, Lockheed Martin expects to almost halve the length of time necessary to build complex military satellite systems, which take on average up to eight years.
“Our goal is to get that down to under five years,” he says. “We think it is doable within three to five years.”
In the meantime, one of the biggest challenges companies face is the cost to replace printing hardware, which can become obsolete within a year from purchase. Another obstacle is training engineers to design hardware with additive manufacturing in mind.
“We brought in some engineers that had just graduated from college and said ‘Go back to fundamentals, design something that you can’t machine,’” Ambrose says, adding that the result was a bracket with an order of magnitude reduction in mass.
“It looks like something you would never design, but it transfers the loads, the thermal energy, and works just fine,” he says. “You can’t machine it, but you can print it.”