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3D Printing is Gaining Momentum in the Aerospace Industry, A $63 Billion Opportunity

On 1st March 2022, reports emerged that Boeing had started to build the latest version of the Wideband Global Satcom communications satellite system. It aims to shorten the production cycle of the US military satellite with the use of 3D printing (1).

The aerospace giant will print more than a thousand parts to deliver the WGS-11+ by 2024.

Col. Matt Spencer, Space Systems Command Geosynchronous Earth Orbit and Polar Division Senior Materiel Leader, said (2), “We are moving at record-breaking speed to deliver the unsurpassed resilience, efficiency, and throughput WGS-11+ gives our warfighters. On the battlefield, Boeing’s ability to quickly integrate the latest commercial technology into our infrastructure offers us a competitive advantage.”

Boeing and the US Space Force completed the critical design assessment for the system in late 2021, kicking off the production phase of the program. Boeing has built costs and schedule benefits while improving system performance by utilizing additive manufacturing, fast prototyping, agile development, and other new techniques.

“We are printing over a thousand pieces for WGS-11+,” said Troy Dawson, Vice President of Boeing Government Satellite Systems (3). “This gives us the option to offer customization in a way that improves system performance without requiring substantial integration timeframes or specialized tools.”

“We recognize how critical speed is to the mission’s success. That rapidity of manufacturing translates to threat effectiveness. We know that a comparably powerful satellite may be deployed even sooner if we continue to invest in our technology and procedures.”

We believe that as the aerospace industry adopts 3D printing, it may be used as a commercial service by other industries in the coming years.

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3D Printing in the Aerospace Industry

Boeing has employed 3D-printed components in a variety of products for decades. Hundreds of thousands of pieces make up large geostationary satellites.

While similar components have previously been employed on small satellites, the US Space Force’s new 605 million USD contract (awarded in October 2019) marks the first time the technology will be deployed on a large-scale project.

Notably, the average production period is ten years, but Boeing’s 3D printing will cut that time in half (4, 5).

“We are printing over a thousand pieces for WGS-11+. This gives us the option to offer customization in a way that improves system performance without requiring long integration time frames or unique equipment,” said Dawson.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has not yet completely replaced traditional satellite manufacturing methods, but it is gaining traction.

For years, Boeing has been 3D printing components for tiny spacecraft, like those manufactured by its subsidiary Millennium Space (6). Still, it has now also started using the technology for larger satellites, such as WGS.

Notably, there are tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of parts on large geostationary satellites, so printing a thousand is a negligible amount.

According to Boeing, however, this is still a 10-fold increase in the number of metal 3D-printed parts compared to the most recent spacecraft it designed before WGS-11.

Structures and mechanisms, thermal control subsystems, dynamic isolation systems, and passive microwave devices are among the parts being 3D printed for WGS. Aluminum alloy, titanium alloy, and high-performance polymer are among the materials employed. Other materials are also being evaluated, says Boeing.

WGS-11+ makes use of Boeing’s commercial 702X digital satellite payload, which can simultaneously create hundreds of electronically-steered beams. Compared to previous satellites in the WGS fleet, the company claims that this provides consumers with more than twice the throughput capacity.

The WGS constellation delivers broadband communications to the US military and several international partners, including Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Norway (7).

A separate bilateral agreement exists between the United States and Australia. It is worth highlighting that two new coalition partners are also in talks to join, but their names have not yet been revealed.

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3D Printing as a Service

Some of the prominent names in the aerospace industry, including SpaceX, Orbex, Rocket Lab, and Relativity Space, have 3D-printed rockets in development.

Now, SpaceTai, a Chinese startup (8), has come up with a plan to slash production costs by a whopping 80% with 3D-printed engines and rockets for the commercial space sector (9).

Even though SpaceTai was only established a year ago (in March 2021), the company claims it can make over 90% of rocket parts with its own 3D printers.

SpaceTai is working on a “xiaoyi,” or small ant, rocket engine that runs on liquid oxygen and kerosene fuel. The company says its engine outperforms gas generator cycle technology, widely utilized in the commercial space industry.

At sea level, the first and second xiaoyi models should have thrusts of 20 and 30 tonnes, respectively. The company claims that it can build each of these engines in 30 days or less (The force that lifts and propels a rocket through the air is referred to as thrust). SpaceTai claims to be working on a next-generation engine called “juyi,” which translates to “big ant,” with thrusts of 200 tonnes at sea level.

SpaceTai has built and manufactured its own metal 3D printer, as well as 3D printing software and a procedure. However, the company is currently fixing a fault in its 3D printer on its Xi’an manufacturing line.

The company is also working on a 3D printer that will be used to make rocket fuselages. It claims to be able to produce a fuselage in three months. That manufacturing line is now being built at the company’s Shanghai facility.

By 2024, the business intends to launch its own rocket into space. In addition, SpaceTai will conduct research and develop an online marketplace for 3D printing services.

We believe these services could give speedier production cycles for prostheses, automotive parts, and even furniture. 3D printing has the potential to expand to 63 billion USD by 2026 (10, 11), which means it might speed up component manufacturing in a wide range of industries.

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Additive Manufacturing in India

Last month, the Indian government unveiled a new strategy to boost 3D printing space in the country by catering to next-generation digital manufacturing and addressing the present needs of local industries.

Due to its technical ability, India can establish dominance and leadership in all four verticals of additive technology: materials, software, machines, and service. Still, establishing an innovation and R&D ecosystem that includes engagement from academics and industry would be critical to realizing the benefits of this advancing technology.

By 2025, the initiative aims to gain 5% of the worldwide AM market share and contribute about 1 billion USD to the GDP. It will build an environment that will support the development of 500 AM goods and 50 Indian AM technologies in material, machine, process, and software and create roughly 100 new companies, ten new AM sectors, and one lakh newly trained workforce.

In addition, the government also aims to raise awareness of 3D printed products to promote this expansion.

Key goals of this initiative include:

  • Promoting ‘Make in India’ to encourage domestic production across the value chain
  • Increasing the value-added in core and supplementary components, pieces of machinery, materials, and software
  • Developing local skills, technology, and production scale to reduce the domestic market’s reliance on imports
  • Consistently engaging all key stakeholders and encouraging global market leaders to develop global bases for 3D printing manufacturing transformation and driving capabilities
  • Fostering innovation and research infrastructure for the commercialization of industrial 3D printed products based on end-user applications that are suitable for both domestic and international markets

Click here to know more about the National Strategy for Additive Manufacturing published by MEITY.