3D printing for satellite parts becoming routine

Technicians at Thales Alenia Space in Cannes, France, have now sent into space 79 metal parts inside satellites for the likes of Telkom 3S and the recent launch of Koreasat-7.

The parts have been made by the ‘additive manufacturing’ 3D-based printing technique. Additionally, Thales has made some 350 polymer tube supports used in satellites. They say that out of the 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 which use the technology.

Thales says the story started two years ago, back in April 2015, with the first 3D-printed aluminum antenna support, sent into orbit on the TurkmenAlem 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. “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. “Our development efforts are now focusing on integrating several functions in a single part, such as mechanical, thermal and radio-frequency functions,” explains Florence Montredon, Additive Manufacturing Technology Development manager at Thales Alenia Space. “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,” added Thales.

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.

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