From Prototyping to High-Volume Production: Recent Developments in Additive Manufacturing for Space

3D aerospace

Additive manufacturing (AM) has rapidly gained popularity in the aerospace industry. A report published in 2017 by Research and Markets suggests that the yearly value of AM components will increase to $4.7 billion. AM components change the way parts are manufactured: it allows for more complex geometries and metal (and other material) blends for stronger parts. Even though 2017 still saw the implementation of standards for metal AM parts, the industry is now moving on from prototyping to production.

AM holds many benefits for the space industry. It can make the manufacturing process of complex parts easier and reduce production costs. AM certainly isn’t new in this industry – it has been used for nearly a decade for designing tools and other components used in space – but now the pace is picking up for wider implementation due to machinery and technology improvements.

Many parts could be made through AM, including booms, tools, radiation shields, and a variety of other parts and components for systems and subsystems. There is a range of applications that are currently being explored, and labs such as NASA’s in-space Additive Manufacturing Facility and other, Earthbound, test and development labs have sprouted up in recent years.

So what’s next and who is working on AM? A huge amount of research is required in order to make AM work in space and the industry is not wasting time. From an agency-led point of view, this research includes the aforementioned NASA AMF lab, as well as ongoing research from ESA in this area, which opened its Additive Manufacturing Benchmarking Centre in 2017.

There are also a number of private space companies actively working on additive manufacturing solely for the space industry, with NewSpace names such as Made in Space, Relativity Space, and Additive Rocket Corporation being some examples. Meanwhile, more companies are beginning to explore the benefits of AM parts and sign partnerships and memorandums. A recent example of this is the collaboration between RUAG Space and Oerlikon to increase production and certification of AM space components.

Large industry names such as Aerojet Rocketdyne are also involved in this area. The company is currently developing a new engine in which additive manufacturing plays a big part. The engine, RL-10, is being developed for United Launch Alliance. Meanwhile, British GKN Aerospace is producing an AM nozzle for Airbus Safran Launchers, the engine developers of Europe’s new large launch vehicle, Ariane 6.

The most recent development in this area comes from Made In Space, which recently announced that its Archinaut in-space assembly robot may be used for placing solar-power systems on small satellites. Archinaut carries an on-board 3D printer, which is capable of producing long AM parts, even longer than itself, thanks to its Extended Structure Additive Manufacturing Technology (ESAMM).

Additive manufacturing has come a long way and, due to a surge in recent technological advancements, we expect to see a lot more of this manufacturing technology in the coming years.

Keen to know more about recent steps in this area? Take a look at some of the free additive manufacturing presentations from Space Tech Expo 2018 delivered by dedicated 3D printing organizations including EOS North America, Renishaw, and Additive Industries.