Whenever there is demand from customers to carry small satellites into space, it can 3D print the engine and assemble it in a rocket and launch them to space. In three years, Agnikul hopes to bring down the cost of access to space significantly and looks to capture a slice of the growing market for launching small satellites. It is up against intense competition globally, but CEO Srinath Ravichandran says it is worth the challenge.
“Can we take a 1980s’ product and build it for the 21st century? As opposed to engines and tanks that go to orbit, we want to take a relook at the product with electronics and software, and build a smart vehicle that can go to orbit,” says 33-year-old Ravichandran, cofounder of the year-old Agnikul that has been shortlisted by European aerospace company Airbus for its incubator programme. “The key is flexible configuration with quality so we are able to launch on demand. We can build an engine in one or two days. Cost is a big differentiator and we can do this from India.”
In conventional rockets, the engine is assembled by cutting metal and forged based on specifications. There is wastage of metal and the process is long-drawn. It takes time to build a rocket— say around 45 days for the country’s Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) is already building a smaller rocket that can be assembled once in three days. It plans to test this next year.
Ravichandran says there is an opportunity for Agnikul to complement Isro’s strengths. Today, there is a global race by private companies to hurl thousands of small satellites, some as light as 1 kg, called nanosatellites, for applications such as internet access, navigation and weather monitoring. SpaceWorks, a US satellite researcher, estimates over 2,600 nano and microsatellites will be launched by 2023. The latest forecast says nearly 60% of the satellites planned are from private players, as against 40% in the five years to 2016.
While Agnikul is talking about the future, Isro has already taken baby steps in using 3D-printed components for its spacecraft. Its GSAT-19 satellite carried a component called a feed cluster into space two years ago. Wipro 3D, a unit of Wipro Infrastructure, which worked on the component, says India is slowly emerging as a player in application engineering for 3D-printed components and systems. It is already building other aerospace components for India, including a thruster for a satellite engine. 3D printing as a concept is not new.
For decades, companies used additive manufacturing to make prototypes of parts and systems in industries such as automobile to validate designs before beginning full-scale manufacturing. However, with the cost of electronics coming down and 3D printer sizes becoming smaller, there has been massive adoption of plastic 3D printing. However, metal 3D printing is still evolving. In aerospace, the global adoption is around a decade old.
GE, which makes aerospace engines, first began using 3D printing to make components for passenger engines. This year, GE tested a full-fledged turboprop engine using 3D-printed parts. The move helped it reduce the weight of the engine by 45 kg, reduce the total number of moving parts to 12 from over 800, and improve engine efficiency by over 10%. In India, Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), which is developing the Kaveri engine, 3D printed a plastic replica of the engine model and is exploring making components using additive technology.
But adoption of 3D printing in the aerospace sector in the country has been slower. In 2015, consulting firm 6Wresearch estimated that the Indian 3D-printer market will reach $79 million by 2021. It added that medical, aerospace and military applications showed promising growth in the country. Yet, India has been late in full-scale adoption of 3D printing in the aerospace sector.
Team Indus, which was looking to send a rover to the moon, built the wheels using 3D printing, bringing downtime to build and lowering the cost of the rover. Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) has begun 3D printing components for 25 KN engine after one of its component vendors delayed supply. It is also working on systems for an unmanned aerial vehicle. Isro’s efforts are still nascent but are expected to grow significantly. “If we want to embark larger adoption of 3D printing 7-8 years from now, we have to address it today,” said Dr PV Venkitakrishnan, director, capability building programme office, at Isro. “We have to work with the industry to build capability to meet our demand.”
So far, Isro has begun using 3D-printed components in spacecraft in small volumes. The industry has to mature to meet its demand for more complex components like in rockets. Units across Isro—in satellite making, deep space missions, and rocket labs—are actively looking at using 3D-printed products. “They not only have to meet the qualification for space applications. It has to be economical that competes in costs with our current process,” said Venkitakrishnan. He added that there are organisations with individual strengths such as in design, process, making the right alloy, or manufacturing.
“They need to collaborate so that they can work on each other’s strengths.”Isro has in-house 3D printers to produce components and products for validating designs and for use in technology demonstrators. But as it scales up its operations—6-18 launches a year, over 70 satellites for the country’s need, scientific exploration, and launch services for global clients — it is increasingly farming work to private firms.
“It is an opportunity for indigenising systems,” said Ajay Parikh, head of Wipro 3D. The company, which is building India’s first homegrown 3D metal printer along with the Indian Institute of Science, offers consulting, work on engineering the systems, identifying the right alloys, and testing before deploying with customers. “The end-to-end offering is the sweet spot for us,” Parikh said, adding that there is enough interest among companies and organisations for 3D-printed parts and systems.
While the process is evolving, the agency still needs a CNC machine for finishing 3D-printed products, he said. Stratasys, a manufacturer of plastic 3D printers and which helped GTRE design a plastic engineering model of the Kaveri engine, says it could produce it in 30 days. This helped its partners and customers understand the complexity of the engine better. “Aerospace industry has been using 3D printing in interiors and other areas.
We have plastic 3D-printed parts in some Airbus aircraft,” said Rajiv Bajaj, managing director, India and Southeast Asia, for Stratasys. The company is working on a metal 3D printing machine that will be launched soon.
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