India entered the prestigious ‘heavy-lift rocket club’ in 2017 when the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) launched GSAT-19, a communication satellite into space . An exemplary achievement on its own, the mission achieved another quiet victory: it used a 3D-printed radio antenna on the satellite.
Manufacturing the component through traditional methods required extensive machining and was built in multiple pieces and then joined together vertically and horizontally. These joints are the cause of leakage of radio frequencies and add weight to the rocket, each gram of which costs dearly because of the excess fuel burning in space.
Additive manufacturing’s ability to create free-form designs negates the problem caused by traditional machining techniques, reduces complex assembly, and speeds up the process significantly. Further, it offers flexibility of design iterations helping reduce risks and uncertainties and improves product functionality at lower costs. These components are typically built using expensive materials such as titanium, and it is costly to recycle scrap produced during machining. Additive manufacturing can reduce the scrap rate to 10-20% from 80-90%.
For ISRO, which has been looking to break free from its legacy, cumbersome manufacturing processes, additive manufacturing means not just lower costs because of reduced weight of the components, but more importantly, a much faster turnaround time.
In the ongoing global space war, which saw ISRO launch 104 satellites simultaneously in February 2018, the most in history, 3D printed components can potentially add more advantage beyond just lower costs. NASA and the European Space Agency have also been testing 3D-printed parts in space, with each agency trying to turnaround faster space missions.
However, additive manufacturing has its own drawbacks. Manufacturing marginal and thin parts has not been perfected and more work needs to be done to reduce variability, so that additive manufacturing machines can produce components that are identical given the same set of inputs . The economics of manufacturing have not been optimized either as there is a narrow range of highly costly polymers and metal powders used in this process. Scale-up of additive manufacturers has been restrained with no foresight into the volume and complexity of demand. To add to the technical issues, there are several regulatory issues given how nascent this technology is, such as approvals from governments and compliance with safety standards.
To propel investments of time and talent in additive manufacturing in India, ISRO has generated demand by planning a mission to establish colonies on the moon. This will be an unmanned mission that will use 3D printers to manufacture prototypes and structures on the moon using moon dust.
In a bid to further speed up and unleash the sector, ISRO issued bid invites from entities to set up a joint venture of additive manufacturing facilities . This should address all the medium and long-term concerns, with it overseeing the entire process and designing prototypes together, making improvement iterations to solve for issues like variability and perfecting small parts.
Another issue ISRO faces is not having a robust domestic additive manufacturing industry with 101 of the 104 satellites launched foreign manufactured. The Government of India is promoting “Make in India” and importing technology from outside is expensive and prohibitive. To solve for this, ISRO has tied up with state governments to incubate and promote startups in the satellite and space tech sector . In a collaboration between the two, the Kerala state government will set up India’s first of its kind ‘space park’ with the technical support from ISRO.
To execute the vision ISRO has, ISRO needs to build enough capability in the domestic additive manufacturing industry at a low cost to move from building only non-critical components of its satellite to building critical components and eventually all components. Rapid prototyping needs to take place and designs for those must be created immediately. Open innovation or running contests is a fast way to generate new ideas or identify new technologies that can fasten the process. ISRO, as an autonomous government agency could recommend the Government of India to open the space industry for private players . A more competitive landscape would promote more investment in additive manufacturing leading to a faster growth curve.
Having said that, the matter up for the debate is that while the investment in additive manufacturing will benefit ISRO in future missions, should it attempt to manufacture traditionally with its tried and tested model to gain traction in the current space war? And should ISRO invest in captive additive manufacturing rather than depend on third parties? It may take slightly longer than the occurrence of a red moon to know.
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 The 3D-printed ‘Feed Cluster’ flying on ISRO’s GST-19 satellite. (https://www.businesstoday.in/technology/news/all-you-need-to-know-about-the-country-first-3d-printed-functional-component-wipro-isro-gsat-19/story/259887.html
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 Chaudhary, Suman. 2018. “ISRO, Kerala Tie-Up To Incubate And Promote Startups In Satellite, Spacetech Sector”. Indian Web2, , 2018. https://www.indianweb2.com/2018/03/19/isro-kerala-tie-up-to-incubate-and-promote-startups-in-satellite-spacetech-sector/.
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