Space, 3D Printers, and Australian Ambition: The iLAuNCH Revolution Begins

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Australia’s iLAuNCH (Innovative Launch, Automation, Novel Materials, Communications, and Hypersonics) initiative, a comprehensive effort to revolutionize space technology, has set its inaugural Trailblazer project into motion. Focused on using cutting-edge additive manufacturing (AM), the project’s goal is to create more durable satellites and hypersonic vehicle structures. Rooted in innovation and partnered with top-tier institutions, this initiative promises to bring significant advancements to space technology.

“This important project is well underway in one of our key focus areas – additive manufacturing,” said iLAuNCH Trailblazer Executive Director Darin Lovett. “Increasing the availability of custom structures, which are space-ready, will support the growing space sector. The partnership will also support a world-class Australian sovereign manufacturing capability that will create new jobs alongside a highly trained workforce, leading to global exports within the space industry and other markets.”

Shifting from traditional manufacturing methods, this effort set its sights on the innovative realm of AM. At the core of this initiative is electron beam melting (EBM), a form of AM that particularly stands out for its efficiency in melting high-temperature metals like titanium and nickel. It’s crucial to note that these metals can become brittle or require high temperatures to melt. Fortunately, the EBM method, functioning in a vacuum, directs almost all the electron beam’s energy into melting the metallic dust. In this environment, high temperatures are not only achievable but also the method prevents oxidation, ensuring the production of robust and adaptable parts.

Arcam EBM Q20plus. Image courtesy of Arcam/GE Additive.

Located strategically near Adelaide’s space sector businesses, the iLAuNCH facility at Camden Park will be at the forefront of rapid 3D metal printing for space structures, representing an investment of $180 million from the iLAuNCH Trailblazer program. The ambitious project is a collaboration between the Future Industries Institute at the University of South Australia (UniSA) and Adelaide’s industrial machinery manufacturer VPG Innovation, a member of the Stärke Advanced Manufacturing Group.

In the grand scheme, this project is more than just a standalone venture. Under the iLAuNCH banner, it seeks to lay down manufacturing design best practices and pinpoint the most effective ways to harness this technology. It will also boost the space sector, create new job opportunities, and upskill current employees to additive manufacturing for space applications.

UniSA Industry Professor Colin Hall sums up the project: “The iLAuNCH hub is dedicated to building the space engineering capability of Australian Manufacturing. This project, the first to kick off for the space Trailblazer program, will deliver additive manufacturing at scale to Australia. The project is full steam ahead; we already have two engineers in Sweden developing the practical skills to operate and maintain the systems. It’s great to work with a company that is innovative, proactive, and has a long-term vision.”

To prepare for the work ahead, project engineers Alex Baricz and James Mathison spent two weeks of intensive training at GE Additive in Sweden. During their training, they honed the practical skills required to operate and maintain the Arcam electron beam metal 3D printer, a technology owned by GE Additive. This printer is notable for its ability to work with titanium and other exotic materials and will play a crucial role in the iLAuNCH program.

The University of Southern Queensland is a leader in space manufacturing, hypersonic propulsion systems, advanced materials, and astrophysics. Image courtesy of iLAuNCH.

iLAuNCH is a product of the Australian Government’s vision to fortify research capabilities, facilitate industry engagement, and drive commercial outcomes. Under the Department of Education’s Trailblazer Universities Program, the project seeks to close the existing gaps and fast-track the creation of a space manufacturing sector.

Through this federal program, iLAuNCH will receive $50 million of investment over four years. An additional $130 million will come from the University of Southern Queensland, the Australian National University, and UniSA. Industry partners and Australia’s national science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), are also backing the initiative. The net economic benefit of the $180 million investment is expected to be $3.6 billion by 2040. The vision also encompasses the development of a national space commercialization hub with three core nodes. This hub aims to fast-track Australian intellectual properties to the market and develop a new generation of engineers for this high-growth sector. With this big push in funding and teamwork, Australia is preparing to make its mark in space technology, setting up an exciting future for everyone involved.

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