Aviation has come a long way since the Wright brothers bravely took the first airplane into flight in 1903. The ascent of technology today would have been beyond their wildest dreams. Not only have we mastered flight but space travel is also a reality now. The new buzzword is ‘Additive manufacturing’, commonly known as 3D printing.
This relatively new technology is now a critical component of where we are headed – aviation companies have realized that it reduces weight-load, strengthens materials, and helps to streamline design within the aerospace industry while lowering costly manufacturing process by enormous amounts.
Aerospace Embraces 3D Printing
Aerospace covers commercial and industrial airlines and is heavily involved in the military. It is departmentalized into applications, design, manufacturing, operations, and maintenance, both of aircraft and spacecraft. The industry is among the very first industries to embrace and advance 3D printing technologies in both, the manufacture of end-use parts, and prototyping.
It has come so far in such a short time that now airlines have turned to 3D printing as an integral part of their supply chain. Its usage has reduced the constraints associated with the traditional supply chain manufacturing, saved enormous amounts of warehouse space and minimized waste material four-fold.
The ability to produce replacement parts almost instantaneously has transformed the manufacturing process for the airline industry, saving time and money while increasing reliability.
The substantial investment in research and development has paid off, the outcome that 3D printing can reduce weight-load significantly is an enormous benefit in itself. Weight affects everything in the aerospace industry – from the payload, emissions, speed, to fuel-consumption.
Stratasys FDM (Fused Deposition Method)
Stratasys FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) starts from the base and moves upwards, creating layer upon layer, encompassing complex geometries, using fewer components for an overall more streamlined design. In basic terms – less aerodynamic weight.
Components of the aircraft that benefit from 3D printing:
- Wall Panels
- Seat Components
- Seat Frameworks
- Air Ducts
- Engine Components
Airbus Embrace 3D Printing
Airbus has embraced 3D printing more than anyone going by the fact that 2015 they had over 1000 parts of their A350 XWB aircraft that were 3D printed.
Having partnered with Stratasys using their FDM materials they were able to produce the parts at an astonishing rate. They produced thermoplastic with super strong production grade side by side being, FST compliant. And it combines a new level of strength to weight ratio not seen before in engineering.
NASA Embrace 3D Printing
NASA is also involved with Stratasys in the space rover program. The rover they are working on is the same size as a small truck, complete with a pressurized cabin and contains over 70 FDM parts. Some of these include:
- Pod Doors
- Mounted Cameras
- Flame Resistant Ventilation Vents
- Front and back bumpers
Plus many other customized parts yet to be announced by NASA.
In essence, FDM enabled lower turnaround times and ease of use for assembling complex parts in space. With it costing NASA on average $10,000 for every pound of material that they send up into space, they have been very quick to adapt and work with 3D printing technologies.
Of course for businesses where load costs money, you want the materials and composites you use to be super light but at no stage can a compromise with the quality, performance or safety be made. The International Space Station (ISS) has used FDM for many complex operations in space in the past few years.
The University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) has developed low-temperature freezers helping facilitate the transportation parts for experiments on ISS under NASA and Stratasys.
ULTEM or Polyetherimide, as you may know, is prevalent in the aerospace industry due to its capabilities to resist heat and deflect up to 153ºC or 307ºF. But it had not proven itself at the opposite end-of-the-scale in freezing temperatures.
However, the testing went well, and they have now produced the inner shell for the freezer units with all mounting structures to make it a one part build, quite a remarkable achievement and an idea of where we are headed with this technology. The first freezer parts reached ISS in Feb 2015 and have continued to do so since on other missions.
The latest Satellite system has also jumped onto the ULTEM technology. NASA announced that their jet propulsion lab’s 3D printing tech was a significant advancement in cost and efficiency to maintaining custom-made antenna arrays after Astroquartz, another old manufacturing method that is both time consuming and costly. 3D printing will now be benefiting GPS in weather predictions for many years.
NASA saved the time and money using FDM for the production of antenna arrays, the technology has been wholly validated for the exterior of the aircraft, and this has revolutionized design framework for the future of what is possible in space.
3D Printing and its Future in Space
Airbus’s collaboration with NASA is just the tip of the iceberg and one of several big-name corporations now embracing the technology, to solve complex issues, make intricate parts and mass produce all at the same time. Next on the horizon is printing in aerospace.
Boeing is already in the mix, investing heavily in establishing 3D metal companies, using them for R & D as well as the end of use parts for advancement. 3D printing is just going to become a more integral part of the progress of space programs for all countries entering and already in the space race.
Just when you thought 3D printing in manufacturing on the ground was futuristic in itself ‘additive technologies‘ are now being tested out in space. It won’t be long before spaceships leave earth with 3D printing machines on board and digital files will be sent for on-the-spot manufacturing for problem-solving and advancements on space missions. 3D printing is not just changing our planet; soon it may be changing others.
The guest post has been submitted by Tim Blaine. He is associated with Pantherdata who stock Eaton UPS and 3D printer filaments in Australia. All the opinions expressed in this article are his own.