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ASK THE EXPERT: The advantages and challenges of AM in the space sector

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Private companies are launching satellites at an incredible rate. To keep up with the unprecedented demand, there is a need for manufacturing speed and innovation. PHOTO courtesy Northrop Grumman.

Few industries have evolved as significantly as the space sector over the past decade, and additive manufacturing (AM) has an important role to play in its future. Jason Ball, vice president and general manager at Burloak Technologies, explains why space OEMs are drawn to the advantages of AM and how AM is making its mark on this thriving sector.

Q: The space sector has changed quite drastically over the past decade. Where does AM fit into this evolution?

Ball: A great deal has changed in the space sector. The most significant changes involve the types and volumes of products being sent into orbit, and a shift in who is sending them there. Not long ago, government-led programs were responsible for space launches, and they were few and far between. Today, with the exponential boom in communications requirements here on Earth, private companies – including venture capitalist funded start-ups – are launching satellites into space at an incredible rate.

To keep up with this unprecedented demand, today’s space companies have a real need for speed and innovation – and that’s where AM comes into play. Because AM involves printing parts from digital design schematics, it drastically shrinks what was once a years-long development process with numerous prototypes and a complex supply chain, into an activity that takes mere weeks or months. Not only is this a much faster approach, it significantly cuts down on product lifecycle costs, enhances flexibility and opens the door to new, once-impossible design possibilities.

Q: What kinds of space applications are well suited to AM and why?

Ball: AM is an excellent solution for space-bound satellite and rocket components that require lighter weight and higher-performing parts to withstand demanding conditions. These include a variety of parts such as engine components and propulsion systems, low earth orbit (LEO) and medium earth orbit (MEO) satellite constellations, GEO stationary unit parts, RF waveguides, antennae units and more – as the sector continues to evolve.

Certainly, the components that reap the most benefit from AM are those highly complex, innovative, integrated and sometimes multi-functioning parts that cannot be built using traditional manufacturing approaches. For example, leveraging design for AM (DfAM) principles and a wide range of material options, we help our OEM customers to consolidate multiple components into one streamlined unit – reducing part counts while creating something stronger, more reliable and durable than the incumbent design. These are important qualities when you are sending something into space, and help to ensure OEMs comply with regulatory, government and civil requirements.

AM is also well suited to OEMs, parts and products that cannot withstand the risks of a dynamic, and often unpredictable, global supply chain. Because AM production can be localized it ensures an uninterrupted source of supply to keep OEMs’ business objectives moving steadily forward. Our two facilities – in Canada and the US – provide enhanced supply chain stability for our space customers in these regions. 

Additive manufacturing provides optimized solutions across a range of space-bound satellite and rocket components – including engine components and propulsion systems. PHOTO courtesy Burloak Technologies.

Q: What are the special challenges when it comes to AM for space-bound components?

Ball: AM is a relatively nascent industry – its ecosystem, data and proof points are still emerging. So while space OEMs certainly need the speed, innovation and supply chain advantages of AM, they must also feel confident in the science – the technology, processes and reliability of AM solutions. In that respect – as in any industry – some OEMs are farther ahead on the adoption curve.

We have found that establishing close relationships where Burloak truly functions as an extension of an OEM’s team and guides them through every step of the AM journey, has been highly effective. OEMs want AM partners who are true experts in serving the space sector and who have the capability and proven processes to deliver reliability and repeatability at scale.

While some space companies will consider trying to ramp AM solutions in house, this can be an extremely resource and time intensive challenge to undertake. Established AM partners will immediately bring skilled labor, capital investments, end-to-end AM solutions and years of process expertise and experience to help OEMs develop optimal AM solutions – even those that coexist with their conventional manufacturing approaches.

Burloak Technologies has spent years building extensive experience specific to space applications and has the proven track record, cutting edge equipment, data-driven insights and unparalleled industry knowledge OEMs need to reap the many advantages of AM.

Q: How do you think AM for space will evolve over the next few years?

Ball: Space was one of the earliest adopters of AM. From a market perspective, I think we will only continue to see this sector increase its incorporation of AM solutions to support speed and innovation goals – especially as the industry matures and more data and proof points are available to boost the confidence of OEMs who are still on the fence about AM.   As the industry matures, OEMs will also look to AM to drive greater competitive advantage, to help them achieve their increasing functional requirements for parts, and to build an increasing number of components within space-bound systems.

From an AM sector perspective, we will continue to expand, innovate and enhance our materials, processes and equipment in order to take on more, bigger and faster AM projects. This may include new materials or the emergence of effective multi-metal AM capabilities, increased equipment chamber size and even the automation of some elements of the AM process.

At Burloak, we always have an eye on the future and will play a key role in making our AM processes and capabilities ever-better, faster and more innovative for OEMs in the space sector and beyond.

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