In the fiercely competitive communications satellite market, manufacturers have to produce “more, faster and cheaper”. New technologies such as 3D printing have become a key to increasing the satellite production rate, against the background of a quickly changing industry.
One way is to reduce the “buy-to-fly ratio”, which is the weight ratio between the raw material used for a component and the weight of the component itself. It’s currently at 80%, which leaves big room for improvement.
“3D printing is particularly suited to the complex, one-of-a-kind, multi-function parts produced in small quantities - especially parts with complex curves, or cavities - which is what today’s satellites need,” says Florence Montredon, Head of Additive Manufacturing at Thales Alenia Space. “It’s a key to increasing satellite performance and flexibility.”
Depending on the structure in question, weight savings range from 20% to 50%, which is an important consideration in terms of fuel consumption and launching costs.
“3D printing for use in space was first tested a few years ago, when a 3D-printed aluminium antenna bracket was fitted to the TurkmenAlem/MonacoSat satellite. In 2017, 45 communications satellites built by Thales Alenia Space as prime contractor were successfully orbited, all of them fitted with 3D-printed parts. Today 100 metallic parts are in orbit, a figure that should quadruple next year with the Spacebus Neo Telecom satellites”, Montredon says.
3D as the key to satellite manufacturing
Today, all communications satellites made by the company feature 3D printed parts, including antenna brackets and reflector sleeves.
Additive manufacturing starts with a digital model, then melts plastic or metal filaments or powders in a large number of superimposed layers to form the virtually finished object. This operation uses a computer-controlled “printing” machine, calling on a 3D digital model in a CAD (computer-aided design) file.
Complex single-piece parts can be made using this technique, components that would be impossible to make using conventional manufacturing processes. Depending on the application, 3D printing of these single-piece parts, rather than the assembly of a number of pieces using conventional techniques, offers significant weight and cost savings.
Along with robots, “cobots” — collaborative robots — and virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing will be a big part of the “Factory of the Future”. It has already found a place in Thales Alenia Space’s “clean rooms”, or manufacturing space in which airborne particulates, contaminants and pollutants are kept within strict limits. In the near future, all types of satellites, including Earth Observation ones, will feature space parts made thanks to additive manufacturing technology.
Additive manufacturing, robots and cobots, Industry 4.0, virtual and augmented reality… That sometimes overused buzzword - innovation - has really come into its own at Thales Alenia Space!