3D printing is finding increasing applications in the space sector, particularly when it comes to producing rocket engines and satellite parts. Meanwhile, the technology is also making its way into the construction of antennas, both for on-world and off-world use. Demonstrating the possibilities in this promising niche is 3D Systems (NYSE: DDD), which announced a partnership with Australia’s Fleet Space Technologies that led to the 3D printing of radio frequency (RF) patch antennas for its Alpha satellite constellation.
To do so, Fleet Space worked with 3D Systems’ Application Innovation Group (AIG), which has been involved in such innovative use cases as 3D printed semiconductor equipment and turbomachinery. With Fleet Space, the AIG team was able to develop a complete additive manufacturing (AM) solution for its RF patch design, including process development and bridge production on its DMP Flex 350 metal 3D printer. In turn, Fleet Space was able to move to small batch production of its RF antennas in just three weeks.
3D Printing Satellite Antennas in Just Three Weeks
Fleet Space became aware that AM would be essential to the production of its patch antennas due to the fact that they were designed to meet the size, weight, and performance of the firm’s Alpha satellites, all while limiting the need for post-processing. One major accomplishment from the design is obtaining ten times more throughput per kilo of spacecraft capacity for satellite communications.
The AIG team developed print processes to 3D print the antenna using two different materials: LaserForm AlSi10Mg and Al6061-RAM2. 3D Systems suggests that the unique vacuum chamber of the DMP Flex 350 was critical for the project. This is because the low oxygen environment (<25 ppm) results in a good surface finish and fine feature detail necessary for minimizing signal losses. An added benefit was the reduction in argon gas consumed. With 3DXpert software able to efficiently transition from 3D model to printed part, the partners were able to 3D print 55 RF patch antennas per build on the DMP Flex 350 system.
In-house Metal 3D Printing
To execute in-house production, Fleet Space has acquired its own DMP Flex 350 for use at its headquarters in Beverly, Adelaide. There, the Aussie company will use the laser powder bed fusion (PBF) system to 3D print its RF patch antennas for its 140 Alpha satellite constellation, currently in development. Using ambient noise tomography powered by its constellation of satellites, the company suggests it can look for natural resources with minimal ecological destruction.
“Our work with Fleet Space Technologies is yet another example of how 3D Systems helps our aerospace customers accelerate innovation and de-risk their additive manufacturing application development,” said Dr. Michael Shepard, vice president, aerospace & defense segment, 3D Systems. “We do this by partnering with customers to provide an application solution with the right hardware, materials, software, and services for their needs. In this case, we’ve been able to help Fleet Space Technologies bring a qualified production process for their satellite hardware in-house in a very short amount of time.”
“Fleet’s Alpha constellation represents a significant leap forward in our mission to unlock the potential of truly global connectivity, in doing so creating global benefits for applications like making the search for critical minerals more sustainable and viable,” said Flavia Tata Nardini, founder and CEO, Fleet Space Technologies. “To achieve this, we constantly strive to find more ways to manufacture our technology to deliver exceptional quality at scale and in a way that is economically viable. Together with 3D Systems’ AIG, we are unlocking the remarkable potential of additive manufacturing at our world-class facility in Adelaide, South Australia. This technology will enable our people to create the production processes that will deliver on Fleet’s ambition to launch more than 140 low earth orbit satellites in the Alpha constellation.”
Powering the Industrial Internet of Things
55 antennas per build for a constellation of 140 satellites is a remarkable breakthrough for a technology previously thought capable of only one-off parts and prototyping. It is exactly in these niche applications, where costs would be high otherwise and components geometrically complex, that AM is first breaking through into production. Whereas Arcam was able to apply its technology for the serial manufacturing of hip implants, stacking parts into a single build, we’re now seeing similar strategies applied in increasing sectors.
The private space industry, in particular, has proven lucrative. According to the “3D Printing in Commercial Space: The AM Ecosystem in the Private Space Industry” report from SmarTech Analysis, the overall value of 3D printed parts for private space is projected to reach $2.1 billion in 2026 and $5.4 billion by 2031.
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