The Aerospace Integrated Bearing is a design that can only be fabricated by additive manufacturing and which exploits most of the benefits of this technology.
We have created an optimized and customizable support for space that can rotate in the 3 axes and it can be manufactured ALL in just 1 step. It does not need any assembly and still contains a ball-bearing inside the support.
The application of this design is a mechanism to orientate the solar panels of a satellite.
Current supports in most satellites only deploy the panels to a fixed position with a hinge mechanism. We performed a holistic approach addressing structural integrity, functionality, material, energy consumption and assembly simplicity to obtain a viable solution that could orientate each panel to capture the most Sun light.
Starting from different concepts and real space requirements, we focused on creating the mechanism in only one part, while reducing weight. That led as to the idea of including an inner sphere as a ball-joint inside a structural support. This concept is totally new. It adds movement to what currently is just a hinge. It can only be created with additive techniques and its small size makes it feasible to be produced in most industrial AM machines.
However, this idea had one important challenge: The tolerances between the inner and the outer balls were difficult to meet in metal printing. To solve this problem, we invented an auto-fitted bearing: This is the master-piece of our design. The inner ball is divided in 3 sections, close to each other during manufacturing. Once the whole part is manufactured, the magic happens: A stem inserted inside the sections expands them to adjust the tolerance. When required position is found, it can be fixed it with two nuts.
The whole mechanism (structure + inner ball-joint) has been optimized without losing functionality, taking as inputs typical loads we had from several space projects and using the properties of Titanium alloy Ti6-4 for 3D printing. We used simulation-driven-design methodologies to find the best design in an iterative process, with a topological optimization approach.
The final result is a 3D parametric model, using the optimized output as a reference. If the inputs change, we can easily modify all the design. This is essential for customization.
So what did we achieve with our disruptive design?
1. Integration of parts for assembly reduction: A mechanism printed in one step.
2. Optimized design, Reducing weight and therefore, huge costs saving, as weight is critical in space.
3. New functionalities: added movement to a satellite support.
4. This concept can serve also as inspiration for many other applications in other sectors.
5. Auto-fitted bearing concept to solve precision and tolerances issues in metal printing.
6. A lot of room for improvement, like including an electric inductive engine inside the inner sphere.
This is an example of a collaborative work between different multi-skilled experts, that brought their experience and their ideas to solve a specific problem.