Jul 12, 2016 | By Benedict

Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape SAS have built Europe’s largest qualified 3D printed metal parts for satellites using a Concept Laser 3D printer. The laser-melted antenna supports, which took six days to print, will be used on the Koreasat-5A and 7 satellites, due to go to into orbit in 2017.

We’ve all heard about the International Space Station’s AMF 3D printer making printed parts in space, but additive manufacturing experts elsewhere are shooting for the stars in other ways. Franco-Italian aerospace manufacturer Thales Alenia Space, for example, has just created Europe’s largest 3D printed metal satellite part. The massive 3D printed antenna supports, which measure a whopping 447 x 204.5 x 391 mm but weigh just 1.13 kg each, will be implemented on the Koreasat-5A and Koreasat-7 South Korean communications satellites, both of which will go into orbit next year. Thales Alenia Space first announced its intention to build the 3D printed satellite parts in October last year.

The huge additively manufactured satellite components are actually the result of a joint effort from Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape SAS, a 3D printing service provider with experience in manufacturing parts for the aerospace sector. Together, the two companies endeavored to create an antenna support that was significantly lighter than the standard aluminum supports typically used on communications satellites. While aluminum is already very light, as well as thermally conductive, Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape realized that they could shave further pounds off the component with the use of topology optimization software and a 3D printable metal alloy.

Accordingly, the 3D printed antenna supports were made with the AISi7Mg alloy, a high-strength material perfectly suited to the rigors of outer space. While there were some minor deviations in the geometry of the printed part, as well as a small crack revealed by a CT scan, simple reworking returned the part to an excellent condition. Subsequent tests showed excellent tensile and shear strength and low (<1%) porosity, with the additive manufacturing process contributing greatly to the positive results and to other advantageous factors: “The effects were huge,” said Florence Montredon, Additive Manufacturing Technology Development Manager at Thales Alenia Space. “A 22% weight saving for the bionic AM structure compared to a conventional structure. Not forgetting a reduction in costs of around 30% with the finished part being available very much faster.”

When designing the 3D printed satellite parts, topology optimization software was used to reduce the total mass, eliminating material at points of low stress. This process took place over 2-3 passages, with the CAD model redesigned and smoothed before a mechanical analysis and simulation. The design was even optimized for the specific conditions of the print job, with the orientation of the part and its necessary support structures taken into consideration. Montredon, however, commented that further steps could be taken to improve future projects: “In the future, we would also like to incorporate thermal control technology or radio functions directly on or within the 3D structures,” she said.

In order to create such a large 3D printed metal part for the two Koreasat satellites, Thales Alenia Space and Poly-Shape needed a massive 3D printer. And although Poly-Shape keeps 28 different machines at its premises, there was only ever one candidate for the job: the Concept Laser X line 1000R. With a build volume of 630 x 400 x 500 mm, the Concept Laser 3D printer has a closed system and powder management in accordance with ATEX directives, contributing to regular, error-free printing. The machine also uses Concept Laser’s LaserCUSING technology, a patented stochastic navigation process which proved particularly useful for the project as it helped to significantly reduce stresses in the large components. Using the giant printer, the two companies were able to produce the satellite components in six days.

According to Stéphane Abed, CEO of Poly-Shape, the Concept Laser machine was more-or-less the only option available to the two companies, given the sheer size of the printed parts: “There are currently no other alternatives, unless you use smaller build envelopes and then join the parts together,” Abed explained. “This carries the risk of weak points in the structure. One theoretical alternative would have been to print the parts in two halves and join them together, but we would have lost the benefit of the reduction in the amount of assembly work that is possible here. In addition, the joining process may have revealed possible defects which can be ruled out with the one-shot option of laser melting. Not forgetting: with one part we can achieve our objective faster.”

As well as reducing the weight and cost of the antenna support, additive manufacturing helped Thales Alenia Space to reduce the number of required parts from nine to just one. This in turn helped to eliminate assembly costs and time, highlighting the potential of 3D printing for similar projects in future. Koreasat-5A, which will provide coverage for Korea, Japan, Indochina, and the Middle East from the position 113° East, is due to enter orbit before the second quarter of 2017. Koreasat-7, also set for a 2017 launch, will be positioned at 116º East in order to provide coverage for South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia and India. The two Korean satellites follow the precedent set by the Arabsat 6B satellite, launched into orbit in November 2015 in French Guiana, which also has 3D parts on board.

 

 

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