3D printing, otherwise known as “additive manufacturing,” involves “printing” a solid object using a computer-guided device which extrudes a substrate to form the object.
This new process has come into its own over the last decade and is now being used for a myriad of applications across many industries, including the aerospace industry.
Below are a few of the ways the aerospace industry benefits from 3D printing:
3D Printing Complex and Innovative Designs
3D printing offers incredible flexibility in terms of geometry, enabling designs not previously possible to be manufactured. Essentially, if it can be designed and tested in a virtual 3D environment, then it can be “printed” with additive manufacturing. This allows for innovation and exploration of new designs, with imagination leading the way.
Quick Turnaround and Flexibility
Designs can be produced using a variety of substrates, including metal. Designers in the aerospace industry are no longer just producing prototypes, but finished working parts for everything from airplanes to rocket engines. Additive manufacturing allows designs to be quickly produced, tested in the real world, and then refined for further testing. Additive manufacturing allows this critical turnaround to be shortened to hours and days instead of months, potentially saving millions of dollars in development costs and time.
Weight reduction is one of the biggest consideration in aerospace development and manufacturing. Lighter aircraft components translate to both lower fuel consumption and therefore, lower CO2 emissions. This in turn, means less cost for aircraft manufacturers and airlines, and better airfares for consumers. With 3D printing, many different designs for lighter weight structures can be printed and quickly tested, starting with prototypes and moving rapidly to final parts production.
Since the design begins in a virtual computer environment and can be quickly produced and tested, 3D printing enables engineers to design parts with intricate geometries that can reduce a part’s weight while maintaining its strength, as opposed to traditional manufacturing design.
This weight reduction leads to reduced material costs and fuel savings. For example, the Airbus A350 has over 1,000 3D-printed and weight-reduced parts, resulting in 25% fuel savings, overall.
Improved Strength and Durability
The mechanical properties of metal powders such as Inconel 718 and titanium Ti6Al4V lead to improved strength and exceptional resistance in high temperatures and corrosive conditions, encountered in aircraft engines.
Additive manufacturing creates great ROI for aerospace industry companies. It reduces the traditional time involved in the “idea to design to prototype to manufacturing” cycle. What formerly took months of time, including time wasted with mistakes and oversights, now can be reduced to hours and days.
This translates to major savings for the aerospace industry in labor, materials and time. It also means that smaller aerospace companies and smaller governments have the ability to compete with the traditional “big boys” of large government and corporation-sponsored aerospace manufacturers.
This can, in turn, revolutionize the aerospace industry, passing along both innovation and cost savings to consumers.
One of the most exciting innovations resulting from practical 3D printing is the ability to simply choose designs from a virtual warehouse. In a way, this is a little like the “replicator” on Star Trek, but available here and now instead of the far future.
Not only can engineers choose from a vast catalog of pre-created designs to be manufactured in the manufacturing facility, but this concept has incredible potential outside the manufacturing center. For example, say the part is transported to a remote testing facility but is found to need modification.
In the past, testing and development would need to shut down until another part could be made and then shipped. Instead, with a 3D printer and the right substrate on site, printing a new or replacement part can be easily accomplished.
This could even take place in one of the most remote places possible, such as the International Space Station, where a needed part could be printed, thereby saving the mission and lives.
3D Printing and Ultrasonic Cleaning
One step in additive manufacturing can involve cleaning the newly printed part. In some types of 3D printing, a support substrate is used to help ensure the most precise printing and to support the most delicate objects as they dry. This substrate is designed to be cleaned away completely using a specific cleaning detergent and ultrasonic cleaning. Omegasonics produces both the detergent and the devices to make this part of the additive manufacturing process possible.