AFRC to apply advanced manufacturing methods to space propellant tanks

August 15, 2019

AFRC to apply advanced manufacturing methods to space propellant tanks
The Advanced Forming Research Centre in Strathclyde, Scotland (Courtesy University of Strathclyde)

The Advanced Forming Research Centre (AFRC), based at the University of Strathclyde, Scotland, UK, will collaborate with Airbus Defence and Space (Airbus DS), headquartered in Ottobrunn, Germany, and TWI Ltd, Great Abington, Cambridge, UK, to apply advanced manufacturing methods to the production of space propellant tanks in the UK.

During a two-year project, funded by the European Space Agency (ESA), the AFRC will reportedly draw on its expertise in forming and forging to advise Airbus DS on advanced manufacturing methods for the tanks, including Additive Manufacturing processes. The project will explore how designs can be made more efficient and economical by producing the initial component at as near to net shape as possible, reducing machining time and material waste.

In phase one of the project, the AFRC, Airbus DS and TWI will explore potential manufacturing processes and decide on the method by which tanks will be produced. Dr Jill Miscandlon, who is leading the project at the AFRC, stated, “Airbus DS is at the forefront of the industry and this collaboration sees us looking at the components needed to make the propellant tanks and advising on potential manufacturing methods.”

“A tank is generally made of two hemispherical domes and a cylindrical section. The parts are forged, heat-treated and machined down to the required final thickness before they are welded together,” she explained. “They are very thin structures and machining them down from the original thickness results in significant material waste, in addition to the high cost of the machining.”

“Over the past four months, we’ve been looking at methods of achieving near net-shape manufacture, at the same time maintaining the material properties because in space it has to be structurally sound. […] Airbus DS will merge their own research experience with our study and decide on the chosen technique to take forward. This could be metal forming, superplastic forming or Additive Manufacturing processes – all of which would produce the tank parts at close to net shape.”

“Key to the project is making components in a shorter lead-time and wasting less expensive material, which is essential with titanium alloys costing up to $60 per kilo, depending on alloy type and manufacturing route,” she concluded. “We are also focused on sharing the project outputs with the wider supply chain here in the UK.”

Renato Bellarosa, Head of Tank Products and Research and Technology (R&T) Manager at Airbus DS, commented, “Propellant tanks are key strategic items that we currently must procure from Germany or the United States, and we are working to re-establish the capability to make them in the UK.”

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