Engineering materials for the future of space flight

3D printing 26022021
3D printing 26022021

Brandon Sweeney, head of R&D for materials and co-founder of Essentium, takes a look at the complexity of creating materials for space.

Brandon Sweeney, head of R&D for materials and co-founder of Essentium, takes a look at the complexity of creating materials for space.

Jeff Bezos dreams of building a superhighway to space, with a trillion people living in futuristic space colonies. Elon Musk hopes to create the world's first commercial space transport service, slashing space travel prices by orders of magnitude and effortlessly shuttling people to a city on Mars.

But to make space travel a reality, these programs begin with the materials to build a spacecraft. Space companies encounter many material challenges, such as the need for weight savings, reusability, and operating in the space environment.

3D printing and materials innovation is now helping these companies overcome limitations of the past.

The huge cost of space materials

Before we dive into how 3D printing and new materials are helping space companies, let’s consider why the industry needed alternatives to traditional engineering and manufacturing.

Putting an astronaut on the moon back in 1969 was a herculean effort that required the US government's full resources. It cost hundreds of billions of dollars when adjusted for inflation. One of the reasons for the massive expense was that space exploration had never really been done before, and everything was brand new.

All the parts and components that went into the rockets, capsules, and boosters were entirely new. And many had to be crafted exclusively for the effort. That meant the space programme didn't have any of the benefits of high-volume production.

In fact, the space industry has never been able to reap the benefits of mass manufacturing, which has resulted in much higher expenses.

And this is why the space industry is increasingly enamoured with 3D printing – because it is the linchpin for creating high-quality, low-volume parts at a dramatically reduced price.

Additive manufacturing can significantly facilitate the manufacture of highly complex parts for the space industry. Many of the complex componentry and critical parts that previously cost huge sums of money to manufacture can now be 3D printed. This eliminates all the extra expenses around design, tooling, and manufacturing, thereby enabling the cost-effective creation of each part – even if you need just one.

Lightweighting problems

Another key issue is reducing the weight of the parts and components that go into space. That's critical because today, it costs about $10,000 to launch one pound of material into space. Think about that. If a person weighs 100 pounds, it's a million dollars to launch them into space. But if you can bring that cost down, it becomes infinitely more feasible to explore space and increase human presence in the galaxy.

Clearly, weight reduction is a major concern for any organisation that wants to put assets into space. And 3D printing can help here as well. Advances in next-generation additive manufacturing materials mean the space industry will be able to design highly slimmed down and streamlined parts and components that still retain robust strength and performance.

By way of reference, a NASA space shuttle consists of about 2 1/2 million moving parts. Even a slight reduction in the volume and size of those parts can dramatically impact overall weight and thus massively lower the cost of going to space.

Take, for instance, a component like the nozzles used for rocket boosters. These are large, highly complex parts that involve exotic materials. So, the ability to 3D print those can be transformative in terms of cost reduction. Elon Musk's SpaceX was one of the first space companies to design 3D printed rocket nozzles from advanced alloys.

The speed with which SpaceX has gone from concept to actually putting people in space is unprecedented in the industry. And it's largely thanks to 3D printing. This is why SpaceX continues to embrace additive manufacturing in its mission to speed the innovation process.

Another huge benefit of 3D printing is that it helps make rockets reusable, allowing them to be launched into space multiple times, not just once. For instance, 3D printing now enables rocket manufacturers to more easily and cost-effectively replace parts that wear down, such as the heat shields that need to be swapped out every time a rocket is relaunched.

Hidden costs in tooling

Some of the costs of building and launching space vehicles and satellites are hidden in the tooling, jigs, fixtures, and auxiliary components that are necessary for the manufacture and testing of these complex assemblies.

One example of this is dust caps, panel covers, corner protectors, bump caps, and packing inserts that are used during the manufacture of space vehicles. High value assets like satellites are assembled in clean room environments and critical components must be protected prior to launch.

The materials used to make these parts must be both electrostatic discharge (ESD) safe and red in colour to designate them as “no fly” parts which must be removed prior to launch.

Essentium has recently launched a line of antistatic filaments that can be made in various colours to address this need. Our TPU 58D-AS was designed specifically for the demanding requirements of aerospace manufacturers.

By reducing costs and creating more durable products, 3D printing promises to usher in a new era of sustainable space travel for everyone.




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