3-D Printing Companies See Growing Market in Unmanned Aircraft
ORLANDO — Three-D printing companies are experiencing an explosion of sales to the unmanned aircraft industry, a trend that will likely continue, industry executives said at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference.
"What you're finding is that the maturity of the process and the advancement of materials is now achieving some recognition [and] legitimacy, and we see a greater degree of adoption,” said Frederick Claus, business development manager for Solid Concepts, a 3-D printing and rapid prototyping firm headquartered in Valencia, California. The company made headlines last year when it produced the first 3-D printed gun. It has also manufactured airframes for small UAVs.
Solid Concepts itself is an example of how much the industry has grown. The company first attended the AUVSI annual conference in 2006, Claus told National Defense. Since then, Solid Concepts has grown from making $17 million in revenue each year to $70 million. The number of employees has expanded from 35 to 450.
The company still focuses on making parts primarily for prototyping, and research and evaluation, he said. It generates $15 million in revenue in the aerospace sector, about $3 million of which comes from components that are used in production models of aircraft. Sales to the UAV industry make up about one-third of that figure.
“In this industry everyone wants a strength-to-weight ratio where they can make lightweight parts that are strong, so that they can save fuel — which means that they have more flight time, carry more payload [and] stay on station circling for a longer period of time,” he said. “So we keep developing our products in that area.”
While there is a lot of interest in 3-D printing, UAS companies still do not fully understand all the uses and applications, said Heather Harris, president of Northwest Rapid Manufacturing, a McMinneville, Oregon-based business that provides 3-D printing services. Harris started the company in 2008 to support the needs of unmanned aircraft manufacturers.
"As I walk around in here, I see all of these things made out of pure plastic. The weight difference could be monumental if you went to, say a [3-D printed] glass-filled nylon part,” she said. “Part of where we're at right now is just really educating the industry."
Oftentimes, the parts Northwest Rapid makes are sent to subcontractors to be integrated into systems, leaving primes unaware of the 3-D printing companies that are helping to make their unmanned aircraft, she said. For instance, the company makes a part that goes into the propulsion system of Insitu’s ScanEagle.
“We had a meeting with them the other day, and they were like, 'Hey, that's our part,'" she said.
As customers have become more familiar with 3-D printing, they have demanded larger, stronger, more durable parts, Claus said. Three-D printed metal components could one day become common in aircraft sold for production, but the technology is still young.
"There is big money, millions of dollars being poured into this business to start qualifying metal materials for production. But with metals comes a higher-demanding application,” he said. “Now you're talking possibly about structural parts, higher performing parts, higher temperature and more adverse environments."
Three-D printing has been around for decades. Even though it is a burgeoning industry with developing technology, there are many obstacles that companies still need to overcome. Finding employees with expertise and experience is difficult, Claus said.
That most printers are European-made is another challenge for additive manufacturing companies wishing to work with the military or defense industry, he said.
“If we struggle with trying to figure out how this machine can build this part that goes to a defense contractor, I can't send that information to Germany to have them figure it out,” he said. Doing so might cause him to run afoul of export regulations. “I can't ask their expert to come over here and look at it. I'm all by myself."
Stratasys is one of the few U.S. manufacturers of 3-D printers, and it also offers additive manufacturing services. The company showcased its Fortus 400 and 200 printers at the conference. Both create items made of thermoplastics using a manufacturing technique called fused deposition modeling, said Ryan Sybrant, business development manger.
The company’s printers are becoming more popular with UAS manufacturers every year, he said. “UAV Solutions ... has five of these machines that are producing components for UAVs, tooling for UAVs [and] concept models."
It’s imperative that the 3-D printing businesses continue to develop and use the most advanced or innovative products, Claus said. "I've been doing this 15 years, and this technology is evolutionary about every six months, revolutionary about every two years,” he said. "In this business … you can be on the right track, but if you're not moving fast enough you will get run over."