Airbus and Oerlikon Seal €3.8M Deal for Serial 3D Printing Satellite Parts

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Swiss technology group Oerlikon and aerospace giant Airbus have inked a €3.8 million contract to produce satellite components via industrial additive manufacturing (AM), marking a significant step forward in the evolution of space technology. This initiative underpins a decade-long collaboration dedicated to the intricate production of antenna clusters for a fleet of soon-to-be-launched communication satellites.

Building on their longstanding partnership, Airbus and Oerlikon AM have successfully ushered the AM process into the realm of complex serial production. Over the past ten years, they’ve developed and sent multiple 3D printed metal components into orbit. Their latest venture revolves around aluminum antenna clusters, which measure roughly 400x400x400 mm and are fabricated through laser powder bed fusion technology. These advanced antenna clusters, part of a new generation of communication satellites, operate in the K-band frequency range, which is crucial for transmitting and receiving communication and data signals.

Ready for space and ready for industrialized AM production: The 3D printed aluminum antenna cluster for next-generation communication satellites, made to orbit the earth. Image courtesy of Oerlikon AM.

Additive manufacturing plays an indispensable role in space applications, delivering key benefits such as weight reduction and compliance with demanding mass, reliability, and sustainability standards. As Airbus’s R&D Manager for Additive Manufacturing of RF (Radio Frequency) Space Components, Michael Kilian, noted, “AM technology has drastically cut the production lead time for an antenna cluster from six months to just a few weeks, compared to traditional manufacturing processes.”

Hendrik Alfter, Managing Director of Oerlikon AM, emphasized the unique setup of their AM machine as a significant success factor, stating, “Our AM setup can reproduce the required geometries with precision and can be repeated indefinitely. We are thrilled that this cooperation has led to a €3.8 million multi-year contract for the supply of antenna clusters.”

In addition to 3D printing in aluminum, both companies have jointly optimized the post-processing stage, which is critical to the overall process development. Oerlikon AM offers an all-in-one service to Airbus that includes printing, post-processing, surface finish optimization, precision CNC milling, quality assurance, ultrasonic cleaning, assembly, wire integration, and customized logistics.

Meanwhile, Airbus has had a wide-ranging footprint in the global aerospace industry, having been involved in designing and manufacturing military and commercial satellites, developing satellite technology, and participating in various international space exploration programs. Some of its most significant projects include the Perseverance Rover mission to Mars, the Solar Orbiter mission to study the sun, the production of the OneWeb satellite constellation, the CHEOPS (the European Space Agency’s CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite) mission to study exoplanets, and the production of Earth observation satellites like the Pleiades and SPOT series.

Oerlikon Balzers RS 50 coating system. Image courtesy of Oerlikon.

This latest collaboration builds upon previous successes. In 2018, Oerlikon Balzers, a division of Oerlikon, achieved the Qualified Supplier status from Airbus for its customer centers in the U.K. and France. This certification applies to copper alloy substrate coatings using BALINIT C, a surface treatment that enhances durability, withstands high loads and wear, and remains lightweight and low-friction. The qualification of BALINIT C, a non-hazardous and REACH-compliant alternative to hard chrome plating, marked the completion of the Airbus Industrial Qualification Process for the two Oerlikon Balzers centers and solidified their relationship even more in a shared journey into aerospace innovation.

Leveraging their respective expertise in advanced materials and manufacturing processes, Oerlikon and Airbus are keen on pushing the boundaries of AM in aerospace applications. Their collaborations, underscored by the incorporation of AM, have generated innovative manufacturing processes, materials, and designs, and their latest partnership promises further advancements in this realm.

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