While novel technology in space materials has increased strength and reduced weight, the challenges of automation, affordability and recyclability remain. Martin Eichenhofer CEO & Co-Founder of 9T Labs explores the current situation and explains how his company is contributing to the New Space movement.

Space – but not as we know it

A new era in space exploration called “New Space” has gained momentum over the last decade with new commercial players coming in to challenge the incumbents NASA and ESA. Prominent commercial contenders include SpaceX, BlueOrigin and Virgin Galactic. They are being joined by smaller launcher and space technology companies, which are popping up every day around the globe. For example, over the last 20 years over 100 new launcher companies have been founded, mainly focusing on small and medium-sized satellites. Spurred by new IoT technology, the global demand for communication satellites in the 5G age is making space technology an attractive field for work and investment. The larger companies’ broader visions to erect a permanent base on the lunar surface or even colonise Mars are no longer just science fiction.

Lightweight, high impact

Advanced lightweight structures are a key enabler of commercial success in the New Space era – and entire future mobility sector in general.

In particular, space engineers are excited about carbon fibre reinforced polymer composites (CFRP). Imagine a material which is as lightweight as plastic but as strong, or even stronger, than metal. CFRP materials outperform their metal counterparts both in terms of weight and mechanical performance. However, the traditional and established manufacturing routes are still a barrier to widespread adoption of this high-performance material, mainly because of extremely long and expensive development times as well as a lack of automation during production.

Next generation of high-performance materials

The global fibre composite industry is growing at a healthy 5% CAGR towards a $100b market in 2020. Within the industry, the strongest growth at 11% CAGR is seen in the field of carbon fibre reinforced composites. Currently, the biggest trends are automation, thermoplastic composites and recyclability. Automated manufacturing, together with new software solutions, enable more favourable lightweight designs at lower manufacturing cost. Whereof, the use of thermoplastic composites enables recyclability in addition to the superior mechanical performance of this class of polymer composites. This kind of performance is especially important for as applications in aerospace, automotive, leisure and medical devices.

Swiss pioneers

Swiss ETH spinoff 9T Labs responds to all three trends. The company’s explicit mission is to use the advantages of 3D printing to make high-performance thermoplastic composites more accessible.

3D printing brings automation to the traditionally manual manufacturing process, driving down production costs. In addition, it offers a higher degree of freedom to steer the continuous carbon fibres and enable more optimal – lighter – parts. In conventional manual technologies this is not possible, because the manufacturing requires a huge compromise between ideal fibre design and manufacturing costs. 9T Labs’ automated 3D printing systems and Fibrify software allows for highly optimised designs, resulting in extremely light weight parts at a cost competitive price. Commonly the structural weight can be reduced by more than 50%, saving cost and resources. Furthermore, at the end of life of a part, the material can be fully recycled and reused as feedstock material.

Automated, affordable and recyclable carbon fibre composites are a viable contender for metal substitution – beyond aerospace applications.