SPACE

3D Printing a Boon for Aerospace Industry

12/11/2013
By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Small, inexpensive 3D printers can create plastic toys, jewelry or other objects in a matter of hours. Now, the technology is being used by large aerospace companies.

Advanced, more expensive printers can now make parts for aircraft engines, said Hugh Evans, vice president of corporate development and ventures for 3D Systems, a Rock Hill, S.C.-based company.

"It's going into aerospace at a very fast rate because you can 3D print aircraft engine parts and take weight out," Evans said at a Dec. 11 Council on Foreign Relations meeting on 3D printing in Washington, D.C.

Three-D printing is a subset of additive manufacturing processes, which are shaking up the traditional methods of making goods. Manufacturing normally takes an object and subtracts from it by whittling or drilling. Three-D printing adds layers of a substance —often a plastic — to create an object. The method only requires a user to download a blueprint. Because the process utilizes fewer materials, it can save companies money, as well as allow them to create parts on the fly.

Other transportation industries will soon adopt 3D printing, Evans said. Printed engine parts for cars, trains and helicopters are around the corner, he said.

"Anything that moves in transportation is going to have a 3D printing input because you can take weight out of the design," Evans said. "Weight is gold in transportation fuel savings."

General Electric and Rolls Royce recently announced they will begin using 3D printing to manufacture some engine components.

Today, the 3D-printing market is worth $3 billion, Evans said. He predicted that over the next decade, the market would increase ten-fold to $30 billion.

As 3D printers begin manufacturing more advanced parts and items, concerns that counterfeit parts could compromise supply chains have been raised. There are already a number of measures — from simple stamping of parts to advanced nanotechnology — in place to stop fraud, said Brad Pietras, vice president of technology at Lockheed Martin.

"Each individual machine can have its own individual nanotechnology stamp on each part, so you have a built-in provenance and checking system that cannot be forged," said Pietras. "I'm confident that the technologies are well in place and well utilized in today's supply chain, and will be extended to this new technology."

Creating a true counterfeit part with 3D printing is difficult, he said. Advanced parts created with a 3D printer won't work if they are not made with the exact right mix of polymers and ingredients, or the "secret sauce," Pietras said.

"In the aerospace industry, weight is critical — form and function are critical. So you can't just take any old material and create a part and do a one-for-one replacement," he said. "The formulas and recipes used … to create or print the part will have a significant impact as to whether or not you can really reproduce something so easily."

Topics: Business Trends, Manufacturing, Science and Engineering Technology

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