The Vision: Printing a Nano-Satellite

With a staff considered the spearhead of the field, the 3D printing center at IAI is run as a startup, and its employees produce technological solutions for defense clients, which are implemented in satellites and missile systems. A peek into the company's "specialist unit" in the electromechanical manufacturing field


Photo: Meir azulay

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) started adopting 3D printing technologies for aluminum parts about four years ago, as part of the company's efforts to encourage innovation in electro-mechanical manufacturing processes. In fact, what they established evolved into a "specialist unit" that operates as a center within the technology plant at the Systems Missiles & Space Group, and now considered the spearhead of electro-mechanical manufacturing throughout the company. The staff at the center consists of Avishai – mechanical designer; Yuval – head of the 3D printing center team; Erwin – manager of the 3D printing center; Irena – 3D analysis engineer; and Yoram – head of the mechanical engineering administration.

"It all started with a single printing machine, just like a startup company. We printed our first part for a space application. After four years, we are, in fact, an independent business unit with plans to expand the center with additional machines," they explain at the center. Boaz Levi, Head of IAI's Systems Missiles & Space Group, noted that the Group's 3D printing center is run as a "startup" unit. "We invested out of the Group's development budgets to establish the initial infrastructure and enabled a heterogeneous team – a combination of young and experienced employees – to experience 3D printing technologies in metal. The team was challenged to create and find innovative technological solutions for the most sensitive systems – from satellites, through the 'Beresheet' spacecraft, to the Group's missile systems," explains Levi.

"After a year, the team produced exceptional products, and we increased our investment in the center," Levi continues. "Within four years of operations, the center is run as a business unit to all intents and purposes, manufacturing 'out of the box' solutions and serving as a knowledge center for 3D printing capabilities at the national level. In terms of the startup world, the shareholders doubled their investment within a year and made an exit after four years. This is only one example of our ability, at IAI, to take innovative technology and maximize it within a zero time interval, including implementation in the most sensitive systems."

Mass Customization

One of the questions pertaining to this activity is when to use printing and when to use such traditional technologies as CNC machining (Computer Numerical Control of machining tools). Well, the answer is embedded in the question of where the printing option offers an economic or operational added value. "With printing, you can control how the final part will look through hundreds of parameters you set into the printer. This gives you maximum flexibility in the manufacturing process," they explain at the center. This flexibility enables, for example, dedicated manufacturing of parts with integral heat sinks for more effective dissipation of heat. "This cannot be accomplished through traditional manufacturing processes. We will not take a part intended for traditional CNC manufacturing and produce it through 3D printing. When you offer added value over the traditional manufacturing process – then it will be worth your while. Reduced weight, improved heat exchange, for example. Some parts cannot be manufactured using traditional processes. These are the parts you will assign to the printer," the team members explain. Other examples include complex geometry parts or parts whose shape changes under the effect of certain forces or weight applied to them.

Another aspect pertains to marketing. Admittedly, IAI's defense clients purchase products from a catalog, but each client requires specific modifications and adaptations. These adaptations are not cost-effective to manufacture using traditional processes. "If the client's order requires the fabrication of a new mold, it will translate to a substantial cost that would increase the overall cost of the product. On the other hand, with 3D printing we can manufacture, for each client, the specific parts he requires for the same cost. This capability makes the entire supply chain more flexible for the client," they explain at IAI.

"When we speak about serial production of weapon systems," they say at IAI, "What we have in mind is several units to dozens of units per client. 3D printing makes the quantity consideration in calculating the cost of the supply chain completely redundant. It is an Archimedean point with regard to the manufacture of electromechanical systems. Today, a client may order a shoe or a car through customized serial production. You select the assemblies, how the product will look, and so forth. In the professional jargon, they call this revolution Mass Customization or Serial Customization. In fact, it is a serial production process, but the client selects the specifications of the product according to his preferences. This is Industrial Revolution 4.0 in the defense market."

Controlling the Supply Chain

Another advantage of 3D printing is the manufacturer's ability to control the supply chain. At IAI, just like at other companies in this field, they have outsourced a major portion of their CNC machining work to sub-contractors, for economic reasons. "There is no added value in keeping the traditional manufacturing in-house. Everyone knows how to do it and it has become a price game," they explain at IAI. The dependence on sub-contractors is challenging as far as delivery times and changes in the manufacturing process are concerned. 3D printing, on the other hand, gives control of the supply chain back to the company and enables it to be the designer, the manufacturer, the quality tester, and the executor.

"You can manufacture a specific part for a satellite, and test it to see if it fits. If it does not, you can print a new part with slightly different characteristics, and so forth. Everything takes place in-house with no dependence on other parties," the team members at the 3D printing center explain. The printing of a single part can consist of up to 11,000 30-micron thick layers. Before the part is printed, the file is loaded into the machine and a plate on which the part will be printed is prepared. When the printing process has been completed, what you get is a plate with a matrix of parts attached to it, which need to be separated and cleaned using a specialized process.

"As with CNC machining, in 3D printing, too, we consider outsourcing, but only in very specific situations where this offers a logistic added value, such as reduced modification costs, savings in taxation, delivery times, and so forth. With 3D printing, the cost of an hour of our work is lower than (the cost of) outsourcing, owing to the efficiency of our work in utilizing the plate and the design. The 'magic' is in the harmony between the design and the printing process. The designer must be thoroughly familiar with the characteristics of the machine to design the printing process effectively. Alternately, the machine operator must be familiar with the limitations of the machine and provide the designer with feedback," note the people of the small center.

"Theoretically," they explain, "You can outsource using the Build-to-Print method, but today this is a complex operation. There are hardly any printing machine operators we can work with using this method, so it is still not economical. Around the world, such models are already being implemented. The Airbus Corporation builds hangars of printing machines, 30 to 40 machines in each hangar. The designer is located in another country and only sends in a file. The GE Corporation acquired a printer manufacturer to develop printers for a specific part for their jet engines. They have hundreds of machines in operation. We consider new machines that would enable automatic manufacturing with no human involvement."

One of the economic assumptions at IAI is that if you want to print, for example, hundreds of aircraft wings or thousands of heat exchangers, it will be worthwhile to purchase a machine that would serve the company in the future, too. Additionally, you do not always need the entire order filled at the same time. Controlling the supply chain enables you to manufacture without logistic buffers (Just in Time), thereby improving the efficiency of the manufacturing process. This method also enables you to manufacture smaller orders, which were not profitable for the company to manufacture in the past.

"The vision is to reach a situation where you load a file of a nano-satellite that initiates a manufacturing process, and at the end, what you get is the structure of a satellite. The process can rely on a single machine or on multiple machines. When we have managed to reach a production line of this type for defense or space applications – that will be a significant breakthrough."