May 16, 2017 | By David

We’ve reported before on 3D printing technology being used to make parts for satellites and other spacecraft, and this trend looks set to continue in the future, with Thales Alenia Space being one of the major companies leading the way. It has sent over 400 3D printed metal and plastic parts into orbit for various different functions, most recently in January, and its largest 3D printed part yet will be finished later in the year.

For over 40 years, Thales Alenia Space has been designing, building, and operating innovative space systems for a huge range of different applications, from telecommunications to navigation to environmental management. The company, which is a joint venture between Thales and Leonardo, first began taking advantage of 3D printing back in April 2015. Its TurkMenAlem MonacoSat satellite was launched with a 3D printed aluminum antenna support, and since then every satellite it sends into orbit has a similarly lightweight 3D printed antenna support, as well as 3D printed reflector fittings.

The 79 metallic parts 3D printed for the Telkom 3S, SGDC, and KOREASAT-7 satellites were made using a laser beam melting technique, which involves lasers melting a bed of metallic powder in a controlled atmosphere to build up the shape layer by layer. As we reported previously, the company worked with aerospace 3D printing experts Poly-Shape to build some of the parts, making use of the huge Concept Laser X line 100R 3D printer. Concept Laser’s patented LaserCUSING technology was crucial to manufacturing parts on this scale.

Thales Alenia Space also recently oversaw the first ever flight application for 3D printed thermoplastics in January of this year. The Iridium NEXT satellites make use of 350 identical propulsion system tube supports 3D printed from a special polymer.

There is a huge range of benefits that 3D printing offers when manufacturing for spacecraft, compared to traditional techniques. Complex structures can be printed with a high level of precision without any need for tooling, which greatly increases the speed of production. This also makes it perfect for the kind of one-off or small-run projects that satellites such as those made by Thales Alenia Space often are, as well as enabling much more design freedom. The 3D printing process also means that a complex structure can be made in a single piece, instead of assembling together various different components and parts. The polymer tube supports in particular benefitted from this, and are now significantly more lightweight than they would have been previously.

Thales Alenia Space will continue to implement 3D printing technology into its manufacturing, with larger and larger parts being produced using the method. A new telecommunications satellite that will be launched in the near future will have 3D printed dual antenna supports. These are the largest parts 3D printed so far, measuring 480 x 378 x 364 mm. According to Florence Montredon, Additive Manufacturing Technology Development manager at Thales Alenia Space, “Our 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.”



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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