Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has revolutionized the way we make things, and the applications are nearly limitless. A rapidly evolving technology, 3D printing has been utilized to create a vast array of items, including turbines, houses, guns, art and countless others. The aerospace industry has been using additive manufacturing technologies–particularly laser sintering–to manufacture prototypes for well over a decade and Harvest Technologies has been manufacturing parts for end-use production since 2007. Industry giants such as NASA, Boeing, Bell Helicopter and Lockheed Martin are embracing the technology due to the cost savings, rapid production times and the innovation it provides. Let’s take a look at how laser sintering can improve aircraft technologies and what the future of additive manufacturing holds for the aerospace industry.
Laser sintering can cut costs by saving on materials, reducing waste, saving time on production and delivering faster turnaround for some builds. The ability to print on demand has important implications for the aerospace and defense industries, potentially reducing inventories and enabling the printing of parts when and where they are needed. Critically, many parts created using additive manufacturing methods are more lightweight than the same parts created using traditional manufacturing methods, thus producing a lighter aircraft and saving fuel.
The aerospace industry has gravitated towards laser sintering due to its ability to manufacture complex designs, as well as its process repeatability and dimensional accuracy. These qualities are imperative in aerospace manufacturing, as parts must comply to form, fit and function standards for certified flight hardware. Additionally, LS processes can build parts using a variety of materials with specific mechanical and chemical properties, such as flame retardant materials, which are needed to meet specific flight standards.
3D printing technology is rapidly progressing and innovations in many areas are already leading to faster production times by reducing the amount of labor required to achieve desired results. An important cost- and time-saving benefit of 3D printing is part consolidation. Complex components that would traditionally require the assembly of many individual parts can often be printed in one piece, reducing labor and lead times.
Laser sintering in particular has many benefits that speed production for the aerospace industry. In addition to part consolidation, LS produces clean detail and relatively smooth surfaces, eliminating the need for extensive post-processing.
The aerospace industry has recently seen some major developments due to 3D printing technology. General Electric and Rolls-Royce have both used 3D printing processes to construct components for their jet engines. SpaceX recently announced the completion of the SuperDraco thruster, which features a 3D-printed engine chamber, enabling safer emergency exit strategies and proper landing on the Dragon spacecraft. Elon Musk, SpaceX Chief Designer and CEO, stated, “Through 3D printing, robust and high-performing engine parts can be created at a fraction of the cost and time of traditional manufacturing methods. SpaceX is pushing the boundaries of what additive manufacturing can do in the 21st century, ultimately making our vehicles more efficient, reliable and robust than ever before.”
As 3D printing technology –including laser sintering–becomes more advanced and the breadth of material offerings widens, the aerospace and defense industries stand to benefit from considerable efficiencies and manufacturing innovations. Using advanced printers and metal-based substances, companies are looking to manufacture hard-to-make items for multimillion-dollar programs ranging from satellites to fighter jets.