As newer technologies–like additive manufacturing and generative design—converge, engineers are tackling design challenges they couldn’t address, let along build, previously.
Leslie Langnau, Managing Editor
NASA has spent decades exploring Mars through various mobile vehicles. So far, there has been scant signs of life on that planet. Now, the plan is to examine other planets for possible life.
Thus, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is turning to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter. However, JPL engineers must solve several challenges. One of the larger challenges is distance. Jupiter lies more than 365 million miles away, compared to the 35 million mile trip to Mars. And if they go to Saturn, that’s an additional 381 million miles past Jupiter. How do you create an interplanetary lander that can go these distances?
Now, add in the following design constraints: an interplanetary lander must perform complex tasks in the sub zero temperatures of space; it must withstand radiation levels far in excess of those on Earth; it must carry a number of sensors and instruments, and it must carry enough fuel to reach its destinations.
Weight will be a critical design spec. The less a lander weighs, the more scientific sensors and instruments it can carry to the planets, along with fuel.
For the most part, JPL researchers will use traditional materials and manufacturing process, because they’ve been proven in previous lander designs. Titanium and aluminum are favored materials for space travel. And traditional CNC machining has delivered reliable products. Even so, new manufacturing technologies are available, along with newer materials, and these may solve problems the researchers couldn’t address because of the inherent limitations of traditional approaches.
Thus, JPL teamed up with Autodesk to explore new design options and manufacturing technologies for exploring these outer planets. One key technology they will use is Autodesk’s generative design technology.
Generative design uses machine intelligence and cloud computing to develop a number of design solutions that fit within specific constraints set by engineers. The benefit is that designers can examine a number of design options quickly to find the one that suits the best. A commercial form of generative design technology is available today in Fusion 360, Autodesk’s cloud-based product development platform.
Because many of the suggestions given by a generative design program have a complex geometry and organic look to them, most of these designs are best made using additive manufacturing technologies.
Even so, Fusion 360 is not focused solely on additive technologies. It also gives design options for specifications associated with more traditional manufacturing technologies like CNC machining and casting.
JPL engineers initiated their generative design exploration using the ideas behind a suspension system for a Formula One race car. This exploration led to innovation thinking about the internal structure that holds the scientific instruments and the external structure that connects the lander legs to the main payload box. Using generative design, the weight of the external structure was reduced by 35%, a considerable success since JPL was looking for something close to 30%.
A version of the lander design was unveiled at the 2018 Autodesk World held in Las Vegas. The fully assembled lander is about 2.5 meters across and 1 meter tall. 3D printing (additive manufacturing), CNC milling, and casting were used to fabricate the different parts of the lander.
JPL researchers are still exploring options, but this lander is in interesting start.
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