RUAG prints lighter satellite parts

When it comes to space travel, lighter is better – provided other material attributes such as stability, heat and corrosion resistance remain the same. RUAG, a Swiss industrial concern that develops and manufactures parts for aerospace companies as well as for the space agencies ESA and NASA has 3D printed an antenna support structure for an Earth observation satellite.

When it comes to space travel, lighter is better – provided other material attributes such as stability, heat and corrosion resistance remain the same. RUAG, a Swiss industrial concern that develops and manufactures parts for aerospace companies as well as for the space agencies ESA and NASA has 3D printed an antenna support structure for an Earth observation satellite.

“The developments for the space industry is a big topic for additive manufacturing”, says Michael Gschweitl, task engineer at RUAG space who gave a presentation about the opportunities for additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry at the professional 3D printing forum at the Prodex trade show in Basel, Switzerland. Gschweitl showed how RUAG engineers took a conventional solid structure they had previously manufactured for an ESA satellite antenna. The engineers then established a load path that defined where material was needed to support the functionalities and where it could be done away with.

satellite

This process was supported by Altair Software, which optimized the topology of the component in order to use only as much material as necessary – but not more. Produced by EOS, a German specialist for industrial 3D printing, the finished component is just half as heavy as the previous component and has better rigidity. Some 40 cm long, the organic-looking antenna support is one of the largest components ever produced using the powder-bed manufacturing method.

Surprisingly, turning the load path image into a printed CAD file proved one of the bigger challenges. “It took much more time than anticipated and was a highly complex process”, says Gschweitl. “There is definitively room for further development”. He expects to see a growing interest in 3D printing in the aerospace industry where weight reductions of one kilo can translate into costs savings of at least 10.000 Euros.

satellite2

Gschweitl acknowledges that there is still some reluctance to use the new technology in engineered products that are destined for space but believes it is only a matter of time before 3D printing will be able to reduce lead and throughput times, which will translate into huge cost savings. He also anticipates that 3D printing can optimize the supply chain. “The investment in the beginning can translate in big savings further down the line”, he says.