Radiofrequency components are at the heart of every telecommunications satellite, and such parts are now being produced by Airbus in large volumes with innovative Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM) technology – which is the Airbus uses for additive manufacturing/3D printing – for its latest spacecraft: the Eurostar Neo-series relay platform.
A total of 500 radio frequency (RF) components, composed of multi-waveguide blocks and switch assembly networks, have been 3D manufactured by Airbus Defence and Space in Portsmouth, UK, and its supplier network for two Eurostar Neo spacecraft that will join the in-orbit fleet of Eutelsat, a major provider of satellite communications services. UK-based metal AM service 3T Additive Manufacturing was a key provider by supplying 428 pieces (all Airbus third party suppliers underwent full qualification processes)
All 500 additively manufactured components integrated into the satellites (i.e. around 250 per satellite). In total, there are more than 100 different waveguide designs along with other network designs. (Waveguides route the RF signals around the spacecraft.) The size of the components ranges in size from about 300mm to about 100mm. Specifically, EOS metal L-PBF technology was used to print the materials in AlSi10Mg (aluminum alloy).
Scaling up production
These two satellites are called EUTELSAT HOTBIRD 13F and 13G. They will reinforce and enhance Eutelsat’s TV broadcasting services over Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. Using 3D printing for the EUTELSAT HOTBIRD satellites provides major labor savings during assembly enabling the Airbus teams to focus on more value-added tasks, as well as a significant reduction in the number of individual parts
“This is recognized as the first large-scale deployment of RF products using the ALM process, and it puts us in an industry-leading position for the technology’s application in producing radio frequency components,” said Gareth Penlington, HOTBIRD Payload Manager.
Airbus’ manufacturing team in Portsmouth developed innovative designs for the Eurostar Neo’s multi-waveguide blocks and switch assembly networks to be 3D printed, taking them from initial concept and patenting through industrialization and the completion of a successful qualification program.
Industrializing Eurostar Neo
Challenges of using AM mainly concerned the waveguides’ need to have a smooth surface to achieve the required RF performance and thus require post-processing. However, the Airbus team was able to achieve considerable schedule reductions over existing conventional waveguides: on average, the production time of waveguides using ALM was halved. Fine-tuning the process was particularly time-consuming and the initial work on ALM components took just over two years. Now that processes have been industrialized, it is only a matter of months.
“This is recognized as the first large-scale deployment of RF products using the ALM process, and it puts us in an industry-leading position for the technology’s application in producing radio frequency components,” Penlington said.
The no. 1 EUTELSAT HOTBIRD satellite’s communications module was transferred earlier this month from Portsmouth to the Airbus Defence and Space facility in Toulouse, France, where the spacecraft’s full build-up will be completed. Assembly of the second HOTBIRD communications module is now underway in Portsmouth, with its testing to begin in February.
Additive manufacturing is vitally important and the technology is now available at Airbus as a baseline for the payload customization teams to utilize. The company envisages further schedule improvements and reduced cost of manufacture and assembly in the future using this technology. On average a single 3D printed item replaces a part that had five separate components.