The Rapid Prototyping Renaissance in Aerospace

In spite of the limitations of 3D printing technologies at present, it is slowly catching up on the aerospace and defense industry. Leaders of the industry realize that the possibilities of 3D printing are endless, and that these possibilities need ways and means to be taken full advantage of. Today, aerospace engineers are using the fused deposition modeling (FDM) method for rapid prototyping, part manufacturing, and tooling. This method is great for high performance thermoplastics such as ULTEM. Parts can be created with chemical, moisture, ultraviolet, environmental, and temperature resistance. Hence, fixtures, jigs, end use parts, and check gauges can be produced successfully.

Aerospace Giants and Their 3D Printing Ventures
Recently, GE has acquired a precision engineering firm that specializes in highly advanced techniques of fabrication, such as electron beam melting, laser melting, and other sophisticated 3D printing applications. Not only that- Premium AEROTEC, subsidiary company of Airbus, has opened its first ever 3D printed titanium airplane component manufacturing facility. There, it has started the serial production of 3D printed parts in metal.

Airbus and their fancy for 3D printed equipment are not unheard of. Last year, they teamed up with Stratasys, helping develop more than one thousand 3D printed parts for their aircraft A350 XWB. Rolls-Royce helped them manufacture a huge 3D printed part for their plane engines. With the recent investment by Local Motors, Airbus is set to become one of the world leaders of 3D printing in aerospace industry.

Boeing too has stepped onto the 3D printing bandwagon to create aircraft interior parts out of nylon and Ultem for rapid prototyping and evaluation. Boeing is already well-known for the rapid prototyping of composite parts using state of the art 3D printing technologies. Jointly with the University of Connecticut, Pratt, and Whitney, Boeing has started a million dollar investment in their additive manufacturing plant. NASA is building rapid prototyped rocket engine parts, sending 3D printing to infinity and beyond.

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Current Usage

3D printing does hold a lot of promise. However, it does require significant experience and know-how to fully reap its benefits. Ronan Ye, Founder of 3E-Rapid Prototyping comments, “3D printing is definitely emerging as a sustainable and cost effective process of rapid prototyping for the aerospace and defense sectors. 3D printing right now is at a very good position based on the current capabilities of the industry.” Some of its widely known applications in aerospace are:

• Rapid Prototyping: Mostly done in plastic materials, 3D printing has matured gradually into a mainstream process of rapid prototype fabrication. Designers can easily skip the tool fabrication process and go directly to finished airplane parts. Even though printing out a prototype can take hours, it happens to be significantly quicker than the old building tools for prototyping. This helps aerospace engineers to validate faster design concepts and overall, speed up the development cycle.
• Units for Demonstration: For rapid fabrication and development of demonstration units, 3D printing has emerged as a viable method. The government usage of TD units to assess cull design concept and functionality are an excellent market extension for parts made out of 3D printing. Especially in defense expenditure, the budget is tight, delivery lead time is short, and quantities are small. Hence, 3D printing is an excellent option for printing out complexly shaped parts; avoiding time-consuming and expensive prototyping methods.
• Production in Small Volumes: Some parts can be particularly sensitive to weight and of low volume. These are opening up new arenas for 3D printing and rapid prototyping. Launch vehicles, satellites, etc. are designed in a very intricate manner optimized for the reduction of weight and minimization of package space. Hence, many of them are produced in small quantities, being expensive to fabricate using traditional injection molding or machining. In most cases, such parts can be made in a more cost-effective and faster process that is 3D printing.

Future Potential
The following two factors are taken into consideration while assessing the future potential of 3D printing:

  1. Speed of Processing: The faster the better and cheaper too. Perhaps the largest obstacle to large scale 3D printing is the speed. Because 3D printed parts are printed out layer by layer, the process used to take hours and sometimes days. It was all very feasible for production in small volumes, but in higher volumes of production, higher speeds almost became impossible. However, now that there have been advances in powder feedstock and electron beam technologies, 3D printing has become faster than ever. This makes it a viable technology suitable for producing sophisticated parts for aerospace and defense industries.
  2. Quality: Termed the Achilles’ heel of production technology, quality is a must to maintain at all levels. There has been significant improvement in laser melting over the years, yet it still produces parts which have heat induced stress, micro voids, etc. Even though manufacturers are working towards the improvement of the quality of deposition, there is much difficulty in producing void free parts. This limits it to the use of non-critical load bearing parts. There is still hope, as electron beam melting is of higher quality than laser melting. Due to the high energy density of this technology, fully dense and void free parts can be produced. A notable application of this technology is in repair in the manufacture of turbine blades.

3D printing does not remain much of a revolutionary concept if it is kept limited to demo units, prototypes, and spacecrafts. However, if real parts can be manufactured through 3D printing, which is already being successful in many ventures, then the cost and time factor can be significantly reduced.



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