3D printing — space travel’s next frontier
An Israeli start-up plans to use 3D-printed legs — that is, additive manufacturing — on its spacecraft for its lunar landing, possibly by the end of March
Munich — In what promises to be one small step for space travel, and one giant leap for the next generation of manufacturing, an Israeli start-up is planning to land a vehicle on the moon that has crucial parts made using 3D-printing technology.
SpaceIL is among five teams vying for Google’s $30m in prize money to get a spacecraft to the moon by the end of March.
One of the start-up’s suppliers, Zurich-based RUAG Space, advised turning to 3D printing to make the legs of its unmanned lunar lander. With financial stakes high and a tight deadline, SpaceIL engineers were at first deeply sceptical, according to RUAG executive Franck Mouriaux. They finally acquiesced after a lot of convincing.
"Space is very conservative," Mouriaux said last week at the first conference for the industry, held in Munich, a city that has emerged as a global hub for development of the process also known as additive manufacturing. "We need to convince people that this technology is real."
The executive’s pitch highlights the hurdles faced by proponents of industrial 3D printing. They say deep-seated reluctance to try the production method is holding back wider acceptance of the technology on factory floors. While the market is forecast to quadruple within six years to more than $26bn, according to a 2017 study by consultant Wohlers Associates, it’s still mostly confined to small projects and customised businesses rather than mass manufacturing.
"There’s still a lot of work to do to make sure we can make additive manufacturing work," said Alexander Susanek, head of BMW’s Plant 0, a German site where the car maker develops prototypes. Already, the company is working on using additive manufacturing to reduce vehicle weight.
Industrial 3D printing uses lasers and other technology to fuse ultra-thin layers of material ... building parts from the bottom up. In a few hours, a machine can construct complex components that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to make
Industrial 3D printing uses lasers and other technology to fuse ultra-thin layers of material, such as metal powder or polymers, building parts from the bottom up. In a few hours, a machine can construct complex components that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to make.
This offers the possibility of creating lighter, more flexible designs. For instance, incorporating hollow tubes into objects to reduce weight or divert heat is something that can’t be done when casting with moulds. So far, 3D printing is mostly used to build quick prototypes, and integration into full-scale manufacturing has been limited by material and cost issues.
At the industry conference in Munich last week, executives said they’re caught in a chicken-and-egg situation where more companies need to invest to improve additive manufacturing, but many don’t want to spend money until it gets more advanced. Pooling resources may help, executives said, pointing out that this is already starting to happen through partnership agreements and the buying and selling of companies.
Last year, General Electric (GE) spent $599m for a 75% stake in Germany’s Concept Laser, a maker of 3D printers. GE has also signed a supply agreement with OC Oerlikon under which the US company becomes Oerlikon’s preferred source of 3D printers, and the Swiss firm supplies GE with parts and metal powders.
"Even GE, a giant, can’t cover the whole field themselves," Oerlikon CEO Roland Fischer said in an interview at the event. "It’s necessary to have experts in the various fields, such as materials or printers." For its part, Oerlikon is aiming to cover the so-called process chain of 3D printing.
GE rival Siemens has reached its own deal with Electro Optical Systems (EOS), one of the largest makers of 3D printers, to automate every EOS machine with the engineering firm’s technology. "Partnerships are hugely important right now," Karsten Heuser, Siemens vice-president of additive manufacturing, said in an interview. "Like with many start-up technologies, everyone was going their own way."
3D printing has made inroads in some healthcare industries because of the need to make customised objects such as artificial hip joints and orthodontic retainers. The aerospace market is also opening up amid the drive to make parts lighter to save fuel. Other industries have been slower on uptake because cost benefits aren’t as great, Susanek said.
As for space flight, SpaceIL’s moon-bound vehicle won’t be the first for 3D printing, although it could be for such a key component as landing legs. Nasa uses additive manufacturing in the International Space Station to print spare parts and tools, as well as for experiments, according to the agency’s website.
SpaceIL’s project hasn’t gone forward without hiccups, with some failures in initial testing, according to Mouriaux, adding that the "printed" struts weren’t to blame. Instead, he said, the lunar lander’s engine made using conventional methods was found to be at fault.