Friday, 24 August 2018 08:35

Launching innovation in aerospace: interview with Pierluigi Perugini

Aerospace is an incredibly exciting industry to be in right now. There are attractive opportunities in interplanetary exploration, “mega constellations” of thousands of small telecommunications satellites, on-orbit satellite servicing and experiments… and countless more.

But the market is as demanding as it is dynamic. New private players are stiffening competition in the space propulsion sector. In Europe, high labour costs and strict regulations add an extra level of challenge. Cutting costs is important, but as with all high-tech industries with stringent safety regulations, there is a limit to the cost reductions we can make. Unless we can develop materials and processes that are radically cheaper yet still 101% reliable, of course.
So the real answer has to lie in technological innovation. To grow sustainably and continue to play a leading role in the industry, we must differentiate our products from those of competitors. The service we provide must be more sophisticated, more reliable, more flexible and higher performance.

Our Vega launcher embodies these characteristics. Produced by Avio in Colleferro, near Rome, Vega has launched 11 times since we introduced it in 2012, with every launch a success. Vega, along with our next-generation launcher Vega C, are scheduled to launch three or four times per year, with the calendar already booked out until 2021. Vega C can carry 2,300 kg of payload into low earth orbit, 800 kg more than Vega.
As I said, the market is demanding. To catch the opportunities, launcher systems should be as flexible and cost-effective as possible, ready to launch whenever needed. Our medium-term development programmes reflect this. Vega Light, a pared-down version of Vega C without the first stage, is designed to launch 300 kg of payload into low earth orbit at a competitive cost. It is scheduled to enter into service in 2021. In 2024 we plan to release Vega E, which will include an innovative upper stage based on cryogenic liquid propulsion (oxygen/methane). This will make it more flexible and help it to deliver satellites to a wider variety of orbits.

Many in the European aerospace industry are surprised that we managed to develop such a reliable launcher system as Vega in just a few years, and without the huge financial resources that are usual in projects of this type. I put this success down to three factors, all of them based around our people. First, our people are highly skilled. Our facilities are located close to important universities in Rome, Turin and Naples, and aerospace attracts many of the best engineering graduates. Second, we are passionate about what we do. This is one of the most important parts of my job: sharing passion, enthusiasm and humility for the projects in which we are involved. Third, we have a short decision-making chain and are not restricted by heavy layers of internal management.

Industry 4.0 promises to help us develop our launchers and other space propulsion technologies faster and better. For example, we plan to manufacture the thrust chamber of our new Vega E launcher using additive manufacturing. The thrust chamber is a critical component of the launch, in some ways the heart of the system. Additive manufacturing allows us to use a single-material, single-part approach. This eliminates traditional processes like brazing, electrodeposition or welding and their associated ongoing and one-off costs. The result: significant cost reduction and a higher-performance component.

Vega E’s large tanks will be made using specially developed lightweight composite materials. Our aim is to achieve cryotanks that are more than 30% lighter than current state-of-the-art metallic tanks and cost 25% less to manufacture. RINA’s competencies in advanced materials, as well as its various experimentation and testing facilities, are key to our cooperation in this area. Our collaboration with RINA is also helpful in maintaining quality. Avio is certified AS/EN 9100, the key quality management standard for the aerospace industry, so we periodically submit to audits of our design, development, documentation and configuration management processes.

In addition to these larger “headline” programmes, we are also working with RINA to develop a special process based on plasma sprays for coating graphite and carbon-carbon structures exposed to high levels of thermal flux. A particularly important use of this technique would be at the throat insert of a solid rocket motor nozzle. We have successfully performed a firing test on a small-scale component in a fully representative environment, confirming the potential of this new technology. This kind of collaborative development is one small part of what makes aerospace innovation so exciting and rewarding.

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