3-D Printed Parts - in Space!

Boeing records an important first in additive manufacturing technology

June 29, 2015 in Technology

From left, Carlos Pozo, Thermal Blankets Integrated Product Team lead for the 702MP product line; and materials engineers Allen Wilson and Patrick Pattamanuch hold the first production-ready metallic 3-D printed part for the 702MP satellite.


At first glance, the object that Boeing engineer Allen Wilson holds in his hands seems ordinary. It's a metallic brace-shaped object that looks like a bookend you'd see on a library shelf. Yet it's actually a history-making component for an object that's going to spend its life in outer space.

The brace is the first metallic additively manufactured, commonly known as 3-D printed, part that will fly on a satellite for Boeing. The part – a Receive Antenna Deployment Actuator (RADA) cage – which holds thermal blankets in place during deflector deployment -- will soon be installed on a 702MP (medium power) satellite. Additive manufacturing (AM) is also a qualified process at Boeing for the all-composite, all-electric 702SP (small platform) satellites.

Unlike the traditional process of manufacturing, which takes raw materials and shapes them through machining or drilling, 3-D printing adds layers of a substance, often a polymer (plastic) or metal, to create an object. It's the latest example of Boeing's successes in 3-D printing, which has been a part of Boeing’s R&D portfolio since 1997.

“This may be a small part in the grand scheme of things, but what it represents is a huge step forward in the technology development of 3-D printed parts,” said Wilson, a materials engineer in El Segundo, Calif.

Wilson and fellow engineer Patrick Pattamanuch teamed with Carlos Pozo, Thermal Blanket Integrated Product Team lead for the MP product line, to integrate the 3-D printed part into the assembly process. Wilson and Pattamanuch work for Boeing Research & Technology (BR&T), the company’s central advanced R&D organization.

By using 3-D printing processes, the team was able to cut the total number of parts in the cage from 21 down to 6.

“We can build fewer and more complex parts up front, which in turn reduces assembly time and costs,” Wilson said.

And though there is a “cool” factor to the technology, the manufacturing team still needed to seamlessly integrate this capability into the production flow.

“Our goal is to deliver the spacecraft to our customer on time and on budget,” noted Mike Neuman, 702MP product line director, “so when innovations become available that enhance and improve the manufacturing process, the team gets excited. We’re eager to do more work with additive manufacturing.”

The cage parts also represent a shift in how 3-D printed parts are used at Boeing.

Currently, the company only uses plastic 3-D printed parts on production programs, says Dave Dietrich, BR&T’s technical lead engineer for metallic additive manufacturing.

“This is a watershed moment for this technology and our hope is that the success on this program will prove to be a catalyst for future uses,” Dietrich said.

The first of the satellites incorporating the 3-D-printed part is on track for completion this year and launch in the first quarter 2016.