Compared to an aluminum part with traditional wire harness (left), SpaceWorks' multifunctional part is about 57% lighter and flexible enough to accommodate component mounting.
A TECHNIQUE TO INTEGRATE FEATURES into compression-molded components could someday create "cable-free" structures for spacecraft, consumer electronics, industrial machinery, and automobiles. The compressionmolding process fashions lightweight composite components — with masses roughly 60% of their aluminum counterparts — in a much faster timeframe than conventional metalworking methods such as casting, stamping, machining, and welding.
SpaceWorks Inc., a Carefree, Ariz.-based firm funded by the Missile Defense Agency, is currently focusing on the design, fabrication, and qualification of a full-scale, flight-quality, multifunctional spacecraft. Designers are currently embedding subcomponents such as wire harnesses, flex circuits, radiation shielding, or thermalconductivity inserts (heat pipes) within molded parts.
While today's space-system manufacturing uses aluminum structures and electronics enclosures, compression molding appears to have cost and time-saving benefits when applied to mass production. The process also eliminates the need for some fasteners, simplifying assembly and further minimizing mass.
According to SpaceWorks, an organization making at least 10 to 20 parts with composites and a mold will spend less money than if it manufactured the same number of parts from aluminum. Another benefit is once a mold is made, shops can use it repeatedly — generating a custom component in as little as an hour. Molding also helps shops go beyond the straight-line geometrical configurations typically used in spacecraft.
SpaceWorks has delivered electronics enclosures for sensors to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Air Force Research Lab. The company is also identifying new markets for the technology.