Last fall, GE Aviation quietly purchased two small 3-D–printing companies, Morris Technology and Rapid Quality Manufacturing, and in doing so made a loud statement: 3-D printing will shape the future of aircraft.
For the past decade, aerospace manufacturers have used additive printing to prototype select parts. The process is fast and affordable. "We can make the first batch of parts faster than any toolmaker can make the molds and jigs," says Brett Lyons, a materials and process engineer at Boeing Research & Technology. But companies used only a few materials and printing techniques, such as Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a process that uses lasers to bond thin layers of metals or thermoplastics.
That's changing. Companies have an increasing number of printing techniques to choose from, such as electron-beam melting, which, like SLS, makes production-grade aerospace parts. They can also print with many materials, including titanium, ceramic, and resin. Arcam, a 3-D–printer manufacturer in Sweden, is working with select labs to develop new materials and substantially expand its portfolio. As a result, companies are now using 3-D printing to create working parts, not just prototypes.
For now, those parts aren't critical aircraft components. For example, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner includes 30 or so printed components—a record—but most of them are air ducts or hinges. That, too, could change. In November, NASA started printing parts to test for its next heavy-lift rocket. One company, DIYRockets, went even further: It launched a contest to develop an open-source, 3-D–printable rocket engine. Last fall, students at the University of Virginia printed almost all the components of an operational UAV, including the 6.5-foot wingspan, and flew it around an airfield.
Perhaps the most audacious plan comes from Bastian Schaefer, a cabin engineer with Airbus who designed a printable private jet. There are presently no printers large enough to generate some of its parts—Schaefer estimates he needs a machine 260 feet by 260 feet—but he will begin printing the smaller parts now and hopes to complete his plane by 2050, when, he says, technology catches up.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Popular Science. See the rest of the magazine here.
The one problem i see with 3D printing aerocraft parts is the technicalities of the specific material used for printing. Many problems with the materials used now are their stress tolerances to specific factors, some are tolerant to heat, others tension, We need clarity and diversity of possible funtioning materials to be able to print parts with no hazard to overall design.
I hope u understand this. It's quite sketchy in my mind too.
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One would expect that such factors would be considered by the engineering staff.
Indeed. Tolerances of various materials and structures have been and will continued to be well tested, and there will be increasing research done to discover and improve these characteristics.
It is still early days for 3D printing (~30 years in) and there is much progress to be made. The recent explosion of interest will see that progress skyrocket. I expect that we'll see extremely large printers in 5-10 years rather than the 40 speculated. In addition I anticipate 100% fully automated printing floors where multiple things can be printed in parallel. All together, this will really challenge traditional manufacturing without the need of staff or re-tooling, and the ability to make things that were simply impossible prior.
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