Aerospace AMAM for SpaceIndustry Roundup

3D printing according to Space Tech Expo Europe 2023

At the event in Bremen, Germany, at least 25 of the exhibiting companies leveraged AM extensively, with metal applications being the most impactful

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Earlier this month, VoxelMatters visited the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, to get a feel for how the European space industry was adopting 3D printing technology – just in time to provide some higher-level context for our upcoming Aerospace webinar. This year’s expo was the biggest to date, welcoming more than 650 exhibitors, from more than 40 different countries, including start-ups and already well-established companies – from AI-integrated software to novel-material hardware, dried Space Food to Surrey Nanosystems, the creator of Anish Kapoor’s ‘Vantablack’ coating used in his artworks, and STRATOSYST, a company that has nothing to do with additive manufacturing.

At the Space Tech Expo Europe 2023 in Bremen, Germany, at least 25 of the exhibiting companies leveraged 3D printing extensively. At least 25 of the exhibiting companies leveraged AM extensively in their offering or relied on third-party AM companies to complete their offerings. The list includes Velo3D, Skyrora, Insstek, Impact, SLM Solutions, 3D Systems, Redwire, Airbus, Fraunhofer, Ensinger, Alloy Additive, Aenium, Anyshape, ArianeGroup, Bavairia, the European Space Agency (ESA), Coxpace, Honeywell Aerospace, Intelligintia, LISI AEROSPACE, Sierra Space, Sandvik Osprey, Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA), Texas Instruments, the original DLP patent holder and semiconductor manufacturer whose DLP Pico chipset was used by Anycubic to develop its affordable 3D printers, and The Exploration Company.

Prototyping

Almost all the hardware companies we spoke to said that they make use of 3D printing somewhere along their production lines – although mostly for prototyping. However, there were many companies making use of the technology for other ‘end-use’ parts, such as printed logos and mockups. Although not exactly what we were looking for, it is good to see the versatility of the technology in person, outside of events like Formnext.

The application of 3D printing in prototyping within the aerospace industry has not only accelerated the design and testing phases but also allowed for unprecedented levels of customization and innovation. Nowadays, 3D printing technology is instrumental in rapidly producing complex components that would be challenging or even impossible to create using traditional manufacturing methods. This capability has significant implications for reducing lead times and costs, as well as enhancing the performance and efficiency of aerospace components. Furthermore, the ability to rapidly prototype using 3D printing paves the way for more iterative and experimental design approaches – leading to breakthroughs in aerospace engineering that could revolutionize the industry. The insights gained from these prototyping processes are invaluable, feeding into the development of final ‘end-use’ parts that push the boundaries of what is possible in aerospace technology.

Velo3D

Velo3D, and its most direct competitor, SLM Solutions, are by far the most established metal 3D printing companies within the aerospace industry. The Silicon Valley company’s first ‘beta’ partner was Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This partnership provided Velo3D with the funding and access to the industry needed to develop its technology. Now, SpaceX has multiple different Velo3D printers, in-house, and some of its rockets contain more than 300 metal 3D printed parts.

The company also has partnerships with other industry leaders such as Launcher (now part of Vast), Primus Aerospace, Honeywell Aerospace, Avio SpA, and Relativity Space – to name a few. To learn more about the capabilities of Velo3D Sapphire 3D printer and its uses in the space industry, don’t miss VoxelMatters’ upcoming webinar, with Velo3D and Avio, next December 6th.

Insstek

Insstek, South Korea’s leading metal 3D printing company that specializes in Direct Metal Tooling (DMT), was also present at the expo, with a considerably large booth that exhibited its Balancing Stage that enables 3D printing in different environments, and its Narae robotic arm AM system that processed metal powder, instead of the typically used wire feedstock. The company also showcased a multi-metal 3D printed part that it produced for a South Korean aerospace company. The company claims that their technology is the only technology that enables the creation of such a part. When seen in person, it is easy to understand this piece is incredibly complicated to produce.

Rocket manufacturing partnerships

Most rocket manufacturing companies make use of AM through partnerships with companies solely focused on producing AM systems and materials, or that bridge the gap between the providers of the technology and the end-users. Sierra Space relies heavily on AM to reduce the part count of its new VORTEX VRM1500-H engine. Through partnerships with companies like Agile Space Industries, that designs, 3D prints, and hotfires thrusters and rocket engines in-house, Sierra Space is able to produce parts such as the hydrazine-rich preburner for the VRM5500-H engine, from start to finish, in only 19 weeks.

The Exploration Company recently teamed up with Leap 71 to develop space propulsion systems using algorithms to generate production-ready parts for 3D printing. The Computational Engineering Model (CEM) used in this partnership is the first of its kind and is expected to significantly accelerate innovation in the field of spacecraft systems design. It is almost impossible to bring such designs to life through any other known forms of manufacturing apart from additive.

Thanks to an AUD 1 million grant earlier this year, Rocket Factory Augsburg (RFA) partnered with 3D printed heat exchanger manufacturer, Conflux Technology, as part of the Australian Space Agency’s Moon to Mars Initiative: Supply Chain Capability Improvement Grant Program. The goal of the partnership was to embed the Conflux heat exchanger – produced on the EOS M300-4 system with the Monel 500K material – into a gas duct of an orbital rocket.

Metal, metal, and more metal

It only makes sense that metal 3D printed end-parts are the most widely used parts in aerospace – considering the material’s durability, temperature resistance, and overall strength.

Other, ‘lower level’ 3D printing is used to advance the aerospace industry too, but in terms of impact compared to 3D printed rocket engines, it is fairly negligible – for now at least. The technology is expected to be a core enabler of humanity becoming a multiplanetary species – not only in terms of transportation, but it is hard to imagine us constructing habitats on the Moon, and on Mars, without heavily relying on 3D construction printing technology to make use of local materials. However, currently, the most noteworthy material is metal – specifically those processed via WAAM and laser powder-bed fusion.

The continuous advancement in metal 3D printing technologies, including refinements in metal powders and the precision of laser sintering processes, is leading to the creation of components with enhanced mechanical properties, more intricate geometries, and reduced weight. These advancements are pivotal in the aerospace sector’s pursuit of more efficient, reliable, and sustainable space exploration technologies.

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Edward Wakefield

Edward is a freelance writer and additive manufacturing enthusiast looking to make AM more accessible and understandable.

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