The next great steps for aerospace are taking place in a digital space. Additive manufacturing (AM) brings a number of options to the table for improving the designs of airplanes, satellites and space exploration vehicles. NASA has already begun serious experimentation with AM, and the European Space Agency (ESA) is following its lead.
ESA’s Amaze Project is developing an entire research and industrial chain throughout Europe to investigate the potential and refine the usage of metal 3D printing. The project is intended to pave the way for AM-built rocket parts, satellites, and, perhaps more controversial, nuclear fusion reactors.
The Amaze title stands for Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste & Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products, and was launched in January. Factory sites are already being prepared in France, Germany, Italy, Norway and the UK to develop the industrial supply chain. With an initial budget of €20 million (around $27 million), Amaze is being organized with assistance from 28 partners, including Airbus, Astrium, Norsk Titanium, Cranfield University, EADS, and the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy.
Part of the push for Amaze comes from a desire for greener ESA practices. 3D printed parts can be much lighter than those built using traditional manufacturing techniques, and for aerospace applications, weight is directly proportional to fuel usage. Not only will improved parts save money, but it will also reduce the carbon footprint of the ESA’s other programs.
ESA engineers hope to eventually use AM to build entire satellites during the course of a single print, which has the potential of saving up to 50% of the overall cost of building a satellite. Not even a single year into the program, ESA has already begun to print metal jet engine parts and 2m (6.5 ft.) wing sections for airplanes.
One of the biggest goals for the program is to develop methods of refining the metal AM process and ensuring quality products.
“One common problem is porosity; small air bubbles in the product. Rough surface finishing is an issue too,” David Jarvis, ESA’s head of new materials and energy research, told the BBC. “We need to understand these defects and eliminate them, if we want to achieve industrial quality. And we need to make the process repeatable – scale it up. We can’t do all this unless we collaborate between industries; space, fusion, aeronautics. We need all these teams working together and sharing.”
Below you’ll find a video about the ESA.