Aerospace AMAM for Space

Launching a new phase for aerospace additive manufacturing at Oerlikon

Chairman Dr. Michael Suess and CTO of Surface Solutions Dr. Sven Hicken discuss the implications of the latest AM deals with Airbus and ArianeGroup, announced at the Paris Air Show.

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With two major and highly strategic announcements made during the Paris Air Show, Oerlikon is consolidating its leadership in advancing metal AM part production for aero and space applications. The company is investing millions of dollars in developing a strong metal AM service offer that can cater to the extreme requirements of companies such as Airbus and ArianeGroup, even for the most safety-critical parts.

The company revealed it worked with Airbus to industrialize the AM process for serial production of antenna clusters, which resulted in a €3.8 million contract to additively manufacture these satellite components. In addition, Oerlikon AM and ArianeGroup signed a €900,000 order for the production of 3D printed sets of heat exchangers for the upcoming Ariane 6 rocket launcher.

Most refreshingly, Executive Chairman Dr. Michael Suess’ true passion for the possibilities that AM can offer is very much aligned with a realistic approach to developing the AM ecosystem. His goal is to make sure that the company will be ready to fully benefit from the opportunities that will inevitably continue to arise in the near-, medium- and long-term future. And to achieve this, CTO Dr. Sven Hicken is running “a $100 million dollar a year R&D program for metal powder, coatings, digitalization and AM” that will continue to position Oerlikon as the one go-to AM company for all major players in aerospace and beyond, generating more revenues per year from metal AM part production than just about any other company.

Dr. Michael Suess and Dr. Sven Hicken discuss the implications of the latest AM deals with Airbus and ArianeGroup, at the Paris Air Show. […] we are on the edge of seeing more deals in the order of a few million and not just hundreds of thousands, so we may be going from very small numbers of parts to mid-sized batchesDr. Michael Suess, Executive Chairman, Oerlikon

Taking off into space

“We are very proud that we have the opportunity to reveal these high-profile projects that we have worked on for years,” Mr. Hicken begins. “Are we the only ones in this space? No. Do we love competition? Yes. We think space is an important segment even from a purely commercial perspective. For space companies, the weight reduction made possible by AM has even more value.”

The decision to announce these deals at the Paris Air Show is not casual. Even more than Farnborough and Berlin, this giant trade show has emerged as the global reference for the entire aerospace industry. “Being able to make two announcements of this level, gives us recognition, especially if we consider that they are entirely based on parts made with additive manufacturing,” Dr. Suess contributes. “Space is one of the areas where AM will play a massive role because if you can reduce weight and improve functionality the manufacturing costs are relative. The caveat is that it takes very long to verify procedures. The RF antennas we are producing for Airbus took years to qualify and get all the approvals.” The reason why companies like Airbus and ArianeGroup trust Oerlikon in the production of these critical components can be found in the company’s unique understanding of both metal powder material and metal additive manufacturing technologies. “Powder bed fusion remains the most prominent even as new multi-laser systems continue to come out – Mr. Hicken points out – and inevitably bring additional complexity. Over the last two years, we have also engaged more in direct energy deposition. This – he continues – is a perfect opportunity to create parts that require more volume and more material and combine them with powder bed fusion for the finer detailed parts.”

On the other hand, Mr. Hicken sees less development in terms of material. The reason is that once a particular material is qualified and a company has acquired a certain understanding of it, they are unwilling to try different ones. The space segment is driven mainly by Inconel and aluminum. Titanium is more challenging, especially in today’s geopolitical climate, and it is not an easy material to work with.

Innovating conservatively

“When talking about aerospace we must differentiate between aero and space. Commercial space companies in general are very conservative,” Dr. Suess says. “They don’t want to take risks when they’re sending up a satellite worth half a billion or more. That’s why validation takes a long time and the last thing you want to do is play around with new powders.”

Dr. Michael Suess and Dr. Sven Hicken discuss the implications of the latest AM deals with Airbus and ArianeGroup, at the Paris Air Show. Are we the only ones in this space? No. Do we love competition? Yes. We think space is an important segment even from a purely commercial perspective. For space companies, the weight reduction made possible by AM has even more value.Dr. Sven Hicken, CTO of Surface Solutions, Oerlikon

If we look for additive applications in commercial aero engines, the challenges are even greater because the tests required to validate a new part are very expensive and it’s simply not worth it for two or three new additive parts. “The biggest opportunity to introduce new AM parts will be the next generation narrow body aircraft,” Dr. Suess continues. “No one knows when they will launch but there will be new narrow-body aircraft introduced over the next decade. Both the Boeing 320 family and Airbus 737 are 50 years old. Boeing will be the first to move because they need to have more space under the wing to leverage the next generation of jet engines. Airbus could wait another 10 years but when Boeing moves, so will they. We must prepare our additive story to be contemplated in the design when they start thinking about the new aircraft. We must be part of that thought process. That will be the biggest commercial opportunity. On the bright side, everyone in aerospace will confirm that the designs of tomorrow will require a certain percentage of AM parts to meet future specifications.”

Bigger things to fly

Oerlikon and Airbus have been working together in the field of 3D printed metal parts for space for several years, developing components, several of which are already in orbit. The aluminum antenna clusters measure approximately 400x400x400 and are part of next-generation communication satellites that will transmit and receive communication and/or data signals in K-band frequency. Why do companies like Airbus choose Oerlikon as an AM partner?

“From my perspective, it all starts with the powders,” Mr. Hicken explains. “We are producing our own additive materials so have a deep understanding of their properties. In addition, we are machine agnostic, which means we can always choose the ideal solution for the customer’s specific requirements. Finally, we are a company large enough to rely on over a long period of time.”

Dr. Michael Suess and Dr. Sven Hicken discuss the implications of the latest AM deals with Airbus and ArianeGroup, at the Paris Air Show.
The aluminum antenna clusters measure approximately 400x400x400 and are part of next-generation communication satellites that will transmit and receive communication and/or data signals in K-band frequency

This is a key difference from other players in the aerospace AM service market. Many are still in or just out of the startup phase, while others are private cap SMEs that don’t have as many financial and engineering resources “In the AM sector there are not many companies that have a comparable focus.”

The nearly $4 million deal with Airbus is one of the largest ever signed for AM but Oerlikon is also working on even bigger projects that cannot yet be disclosed, some of which are outside of the aerospace sector.

“I think we are on the edge of seeing more deals in the order of a few million and not just hundreds of thousands, so we may be going from very small numbers of parts to mid-sized batches,” says Dr. Suess.

Sky’s is the limit

In the Ariane 6 deal, Oerlikon worked very closely with the technical team to ensure that the 3D printed heat management solution met the most stringent technical specifications. “It was really a great pleasure to see our engineers talking with the Ariane engineers and seeing how they really could not believe the kind of freedom of design we can offer by using additive,” Mr. Hicken says, “These geometries allow them to obtain so much better cooling of certain components, giving them a great competitive advantage.”

As a result, the heat exchangers’ new, compact design fit perfectly into the very limited installation space, capitalizing on the benefits of additive manufacturing. The heat exchanger sets were explicitly designed for serial production. Ariane 6 is projected to emerge as a leading European solution for access to space, with substantial anticipated market demand. Oerlikon AM will support ArianeGroup to meet their production requirements over the coming years, based on the forecasted demand for the rocket.

Dr. Michael Suess and Dr. Sven Hicken discuss the implications of the latest AM deals with Airbus and ArianeGroup, at the Paris Air Show.
Ariane 6 is projected to emerge as a leading European solution for access to space

In addition, ArianeGroup is already working on the next-gen, reusable Themis launcher and Prometheus engines, which will make even greater use of AM for cost reduction and faster production.

Ariane is a very well-known, experienced player”, Dr. Suess concludes. “For us it was a great learning opportunity and a valid reference to further build our reputation as a trusted production partner, now even on launcher parts. We already do coatings for other big companies in the space industry. If we produce heat exchangers for Ariane Space now, we will be making them commercially for others as well in the future. These parts are ideal for AM, and they are used in many other fields, everywhere heat is an issue that can hinder performance. In our production strategy, there will be a lot more of these same parts as well as many new types of parts.”

But that’s a story for next time.

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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