Aerospace to help ignite 3-D printing boom

  • 22-Apr-2013 01:48 EDT

View of a generator set for a UAV. The laser-sintered fuel tank (cap is visible at left) is shaped to take maximum advantage of available space in the assembly, increasing fuel capacity. Plastic laser sintering from EOS enabled the manufacture of the fuel tank and its enclosure as a single part. (Image courtesy Northwest Rapid Manufacturing)

Touted as an enabling platform for applications ranging from personalized medicine to personal drones, 3-D printing will grow to an $8.4 billion market in 2025—up from $777 million in 2012, according to a recent report by Lux Research.

“3-D printing offers design flexibility and rapid implementation, but development needs remain in materials performance and printer throughput,” said Anthony Vicari, a Research Associate at Lux Research and the lead author of the report titled "Building the Future: Assessing 3D Printing’s Opportunities and Challenges."

“Over the longer term, 3-D printing has potential to reshape the manufacturing ecosystem, but it will have the most impact in the near term for products that are made in small volumes, require high customization, and are more cost-tolerant,” he added.

Asked by Aerospace Engineering (AE) what constitutes “small volume,” Vicari said it varies by application. “But in many cases, traditional processes are more efficient for runs of hundreds of thousands of units, and metal injection molding may be more efficient for tens of thousands of units. 3-D printing, because it does not require molds or custom tools, is often more cost-efficient for runs of one to several hundred or in some cases several thousand units. There are exceptions in extreme cases, such as shapes that simply cannot be made by traditional processes, where 3-D printing can be viable even for larger scale production.”

The report notes that “while 3-D printing is used largely for prototyping today, small-volume manufacturing will boom from a niche market of just $1 million in 2012 to $1.1 billion in 2025, led by aerospace engines and automotive components.”

In an e-mail exchange with AE, Vicari noted that there is great growth potential for 3-D printing in all aspects of the aerospace industry, but engines represent the main growth area. And the demand will be not only for production parts but also prototypes.

Jet engines are promising because they “contain high-performance titanium and nickel alloy parts that are particularly difficult and expensive to machine and assemble,” said Vicari. “Moreover, they often involve machining away the majority of that expensive starting material. In contrast, 3-D printing technologies can produce the final part structure in a single step with greater than 90% materials utilization.”

Vicari noted that there is no hard agreement as to what “3-D printing” covers. The term is used more restrictively by some than it is by Vicari. In the Lux study, the term covers both production parts and prototypes, as well as the following technologies: fused deposition modeling, selective laser sintering, electron beam melting, powder bed inkjet printing, stereolithography, polyjet, digital light processing, laminated object manufacturing, and selective heat sintering.

Definitions of additive manufacturing similarly vary. Lux defines additive manufacturing to include 3-D printing, as well as other processes such as metal injection molding and other molding and casting methods that result in near net shape parts.

Companies involved in supplying 3-D printing equipment and/or in making parts themselves with that equipment are looking at aerospace applications including and extending beyond jet engines.

One of them is EOS, which uses laser sintering technology that, it says, is a good fit for the fast-growing industry of unmanned aerial vehicles. Its plastic and metal materials are strong, durable, and able to be formed into complex shapes.

Laser sintering enables instant customization and redesign without tooling, making it inexpensive to repurpose an existing UAV from one mission to another. The technology has been used to make fuel tanks, engine housings, cowlings, nacelles, ducts, and even entire fuselages, EOS says.

Another major player is Stratasys, and it’s the job of Ryan Sybrant, Business Development Manager, Direct Digital Manufacturing, to find all variety of aerospace applications that are conducive to production via his company’s patented fused deposition modeling (FDM) technology. FDM is a plastics extrusion process that builds parts layer by layer.

“We’re focused on advancing both the technology and materials into higher-requirement applications for aerospace” and other industries, he told AE. “We’re talking about being able to take an additive-manufactured component off our machine and put it into service on an aircraft.”

Referring to Stratasys’s aerospace customers, Sybrant noted that “many of them are innovators and early adopters. They’re the ones that are at the forefront of looking at ways to manufacture differently—more cost-effectively, with lower inventories, and lighter-weight components for fuel savings. When you think of aero, for the most part, it's a low-volume-producing industry.”

“The real value in low volume is now you no longer have to keep an inventory,” he continued. “There are no more minimum-order quantity requirements from the supplier, because now you can build it on demand as needed. Let’s say you produce 40 units and now you want to make a slight performance change. Well, now you don’t have the high cost of refurbishing an injection-molding tool or starting from scratch with a new tool. All you have to do is update your 3-D CAD file, upload it to the additive-manufacturing equipment—in our case the Fortus equipment that produced that part—and you’re back in production. We call it ‘production without the line.’”

Stratasys’s Fortus 900mc 3D Production Systems offer the company’s widest range of FDM modeling materials, including high-performance thermoplastics, for parts as large as 914 x 610 x 914 mm.

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