3D printing is nothing new to the European Space Agency (ESA). The ESA, after all, was the agency to propose building a 3D printed base on the moon, and regularly makes 3D printing headlines for everything from conductive 3D printed CubeSats to 3D printed bricks made from simulated moon dust. Now the agency has partnered with the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) to set up the ESA Additive Manufacturing Benchmarking Centre (AMBC), which will provide a facility for the ESA and technology companies to investigate the potential of additive manufacturing for projects.
The Centre will be managed by the MTC, which is based in Coventry and is home to the UK National Centre for Additive Manufacturing. It offers access to the latest additive manufacturing technology, which will allow users to 3D print prototypes and assess their suitability for certain projects and applications.
“The ESA’s Directorate of Technology, Engineering and Quality has called for the creation of a detailed roadmap for the harnessing of 3D printing to the space sector,” said Torben Henriksen, head of the ESA’s Mechanical Department. “We’ve been guided to set up this centre, with customers and industrial partners questioning us about the best way to try out 3D printing for the first time and test out the maturity of the results.”
“Having identified this requirement, we have outsourced its operation to the MTC,” said Tommaso Ghidini, head of the ESA’s Materials and Processes Section. “We don’t want to compete with industry; instead the idea is that ESA projects and interested companies can investigate this new engineering world to the point where they will take a decision to proceed further.”
The UK National Centre for Additive Manufacturing facility has a large selection of 3D printers, materials and post-processing options, including the means for producing polymer, metal and ceramic parts. The AMBC will take advantage of this selection to 3D print a variety of parts for testing. Follow-up testing, including failure investigations, will provide customers with a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of their chosen 3D printing methods, as well as advice on how to improve the part in the future.
All test results will be published in a Europe-wide newsletter to spread additive manufacturing information as widely as possible. Europe’s Vega small launcher will be the first project to make use of the Centre.
Vega small launcher
“By evolving Vega over time, we aim to hone its competitiveness, increase its flexibility and reduce recurring costs,” said Giorgio Tumino, who is overseeing its development program for the ESA. “We’re co-operating with the AMBC to investigate the use of 3D printing for rocket engine thrust chambers for Vega’s upper stage, potentially allowing for a significant simplification in production and reduced costs. For such high pressure/high efficiency liquid rocket thrust chambers, a good surface finish is essential, with the absence of critical defects and the equivalent strength properties of its parent material – produced to a size at the limit of the current capabilities for powder-based additive manufacturing machines, using non-standard alloys.
The AMBC will demonstrate the capability to use 3D printing on copper-based thrust chambers and set the proper process parameters, producing a one-third scale thrust chamber that can then be used for firing tests. If all goes well, then the next step would be to scale it up to full scale, and start the formal qualification of the process for flight use.”