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Boeing reveals its space taxi will use over 600 3D-printed parts

Boeing reveals its space taxi will use over 600 3D-printed parts Science & Technology World Website

Boeing Co has hired a small company to make about 600 3D-printed parts for its Starliner space taxis, meaning key components in the United States manned space program are being built with additive manufacturing.

The company, privately held Oxford Performance Materials, will announce a $10 million strategic investment from advanced materials company Hexcel Corp as early as Friday, adding to $15 million Hexcel invested in May and lifting Hexcel's equity stake to 16.1 percent, Oxford and Hexcel said.

Boeing's award of the parts for its flagship space program and Hexcel's funding are strategic bets that printed plastics can perform flawlessly even under the extreme stress of a rocket launch and sub-zero temperatures of space.

They offer further evidence of a shift in 3D printing from making prototypes to commercial production of high-grade parts for space ships, aircraft engines and other critical equipment.

Oxford's parts will help Boeing lower costs and save weight on each seven-seat capsule, compared with traditional metal and plastic manufacturing, Larry Varholak, president of Oxford's aerospace business, said in an interview.

'What really makes it valuable to NASA and Boeing is this material is as strong as aluminum at significantly less weight,' he said. 

Boeing said the weight savings on Oxford's parts is about 60 percent compared with traditional manufacturing.

Boeing is building three Starliner capsules under a $4.2 billion NASA contract. Entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX is building a competing capsule under a $2.6 billion NASA contract.

Oxford has already shipped parts for the Starliner. The plastic it uses, known as PEKK, also resists fire and radiation, according to Oxford. 

Boeing declined to say how much of the capsule Oxford's parts represent.

'It's a significant fraction of the Starliner from the aspects of design, assembly and reliability of high integrity parts,' said Leo Christodoulou, director of structures and materials engineering at Boeing. 

'Using Oxford's materials takes out a lot of cost.'

'We're still in the show-me stage,' Oxford Chief Executive Scott DeFelice said in an interview. 'If you don't show me the data I'm not going to believe you.'

Oxford, based in South Windsor, Connecticut, started as a materials science company in 2000 and added 3D printing in 2006. 

It also makes aircraft parts and cranial and facial implants, as well as replacement human vertebrae.

In 2012 it delved into aerospace and defense. Working with NASA, Northrop Grumman Corp and incubator America Makes, it demonstrated printed PEKK could handle temperatures from minus 300 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit among other qualities,

'It's everything from brackets supporting the propulsion system to internal structures for the air revitalization system,' Varholak said of the parts for Boeing's Starliner.

Printing parts is often faster and less expensive than traditional forging, machining or molding. 

It requires minimal tooling and touch labor, and allows companies to keep a 'digital inventory' of parts, printing as needed, said Terry Wohlers, chief executive of consulting firm Wohlers Associates, which has tracked additive manufacturing for more than 20 years.

Use of 3D technology is surging. 

Aerospace already accounts for about 17 percent of 3D printing revenue, ranking second after industrial and business machines but ahead of automotive, consumer, electronics and medical products, according to Wohlers.

Aerospace is a 'near perfect fit' for 3D printing because it involves complex, expensive parts made in relatively low volumes, Wohlers said.

The Starliner is due to blast off for the first time in June 2018 from Cape Canaveral, and carry its first crew in August 2018. 

It will be launched on an Atlas V rocket supplied by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Boeing opens massive facility to build spacecraft

Boeing reveals its space taxi will use over 600 3D-printed parts Science & Technology World Website

Boeing today opened a massive facility in Florida to develop its Apollo-star, spacecraft, which it has named 'Starliner'.

The Starliner CST-100 is expected to begin ferrying astronauts to the space station within two years.

It may also take paying customers to the awe-inspiring heights of low-Earth orbit and the unique sensation of sustained weightlessness.

The unveiling took place at the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility, or C3PF, at Nasa's Kennedy Space Center, which is where the Starliner is being built.

Nasa had used the facility for 20 years as a shuttle processing hangar and for the extensive preps and testing of the space shuttle main engines in the engine shop.

Until earlier today, Boeing's still-under-development capsule was known simply as the CST-100, an abbreviation for Crew Space Transportation and 100 kilometres, the threshold of space.

Boeing is one of two private U.S. companies contracted by Nasa to transport space station astronauts from Cape Canaveral.

SpaceX, the other company, is developing an enhanced version of its cargo-carrying Dragon capsule 0 a super Dragon.

Nasa wants its astronauts launching from U.S. soil again rather than hitching expensive rides from Kazakhstan with the Russian Space Agency. That hasn't happened since the last shuttle flight in 2011.

By adding the workweek of a single new crew member to the capabilities of the space station, the amount of research time available to astronauts in orbit will double to about 80 hours a week.

Nasa had used the facility for 20 years as a shuttle processing hangar and for the extensive preps and testing of the space shuttle main engines in the engine shop.

The Starliner name was revealed by the commander of the last shuttle flight, Chris Ferguson, now deputy manager of operations for Boeing's commercial crew program.

'We get asked a lot, 'When are you going to pick a name for that wonderful spacecraft?'' Ferguson told the crowd.

'Well, I've always said, 'Just wait. It's coming.' Well, guess what? The wait is over.'


Boeing eyes satellite deal with tech giant this year

Boeing reveals its space taxi will use over 600 3D-printed parts Science & Technology World Website

Boeing Co (BA.N) on Monday said it could clinch a deal this year to build a high-throughput communications satellite for top technology companies such as Google Inc (GOOGL.O), Amazon.com Inc (AMZN.O), Facebook Inc (FB.O) or Apple Inc (AAPL.O).

Jim Simpson, vice president of business development and chief strategist for Boeing Network and Space Systems, told Reuters the big technology firms were keen to expand Internet access around the world to help them grow.

"The real key to being able to do these type of things is ultra high-throughput capabilities, where we’re looking at providing gigabytes, terrabytes, pedabytes of capability," Simpson told Reuters after a panel at the Satellite 2015 conference.

Simpson declined to give specific details about discussions with the tech companies.

He said the challenge was to drive down the cost of satellite communications to be more in line with terrestrial costs, which would help the tech firms justify the expense of building a larger communications satellite.

But if sufficient demand failed to materialize, the tech companies would be left with the cost of "a really high performance satellite," he said.

Boeing and other satellite makers have been eyeing a new source of demand from technology firms such as Google and Amazon.com, given their interest in reaching the estimated 70 percent of the globe that still lacks access to the Internet.

Privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, has said it plans to build a system of 4,000 satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) for global Internet connectivity. In January, it received $1 billion in investments from Google and mutual-fund giant Fidelity Investments.

Simpson noted that the Google investment was an equity stake in the company, not in the satellite project, but declined to say whether that meant Google could still be a possible customer for a higher-end Boeing system in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO).

Mark Spiwak, president of Boeing Satellite Systems International, said he expected demand for GEO satellites to remain steady at about two dozen a year, but he said those satellites would clearly need to have greater processing power and larger bandwidth, given rising demand for global connectivity.

He said GEO satellites were larger and more expensive, but they would save the cost of more frequent maintenance and launch costs for a large network of low-earth orbit satellites. At the same time, he said Boeing was also prepared to build LEO satellites, depending on customer preference.



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