Since its conception, metal 3D printing has begun to revolutionise the aerospace industry. Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) has enabled the production of lighter, stronger, and more intricate components. Along with faster lead times and reduced costs, this has allowed aerospace engineers to unlock exciting new possibilities.
In this article, we will examine how 3D metal printing has transformed various aspects of the industry. We will share five breakthroughs in aerospace 3D printing and the crucial role it plays in aircraft and spacecraft design. We will also showcase some real-world examples that highlight the technology’s potential.
1. Strong, Lightweight Structural Components
One of the benefits of metal 3D printing is that the resulting parts boast excellent mechanical qualities. This means that engineers can create strong structural components that are lighter and less bulky than traditional designs.
An excellent example is Airbus’s ‘bionic partition’ – an aircraft component built to separate the passenger cabin from the galley. It was created using an innovative alloy made from scandium, magnesium and aluminium.
3D printing metal partitions enabled Airbus to reduce the part’s weight by 45% without compromising its strength. This translates to significant fuel savings and reduced CO2 emissions, showcasing the environmental benefits of metal 3D printing in aerospace.
2. High-Performance Engine Parts
The freedom offered by additive manufacturing enables the creation of unique metal parts designed to improve aircraft performance. This is a key use for metal 3D printing in the aerospace industry.
GE Aviation’s 3D printed fuel nozzle tip serves as an excellent case study. This custom nozzle features 14 complex fluid passages designed to mix jet fuel with air as efficiently as possible. Due to its complex geometry, however, the part was expensive and time-consuming to manufacture using traditional methods; machining 20 separate components for each one was unworkable at the scale required.
Metal 3D printing made it possible to create the part from one single piece, rather than 20 separate components. The resulting fuel nozzle was 30% less expensive to produce, as well as being lighter, more durable and more efficient.
3. Customised Satellite Parts
3D printing technologies such as direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) are now able to match the properties of wrought, casted and moulded parts, metal 3D printed parts. Metal 3D printed parts are also durable enough to withstand the harsh environment and extreme temperatures of space. For this reason, the technology has revolutionised the production of custom satellite components, as parts can be made with new and complex geometries, that also match the mechanical performance of traditionally-made parts.
One key example is Lockheed Martin’s omnidirectional satellite antenna. Thanks to custom 3D printing, the company was able to optimise the antenna’s unique design for improved reliability and consistency.
With no need to cut out and hand-solder each component of the antenna, the printing process also significantly reduced manufacturing lead times. As a result, the company reported cost savings of around 60%.
4. In-Space Manufacturing and Repair
3D printing in aerospace has also facilitated the development of in-space manufacturing and repair. This has helped to reduce astronauts’ dependence on Earth-based supply chains and enhance mission flexibility.
A notable example is the Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF), which is installed on the International Space Station (ISS). This 3D printing platform, activated in 2016, allows for the creation of tools, equipment, and replacement parts on-demand.
Currently, the AMF works primarily with plastic polymers. However, a new ISS project – the Multi-Material Fabrication Laboratory (FabLab) – will include the ability to 3D print metals. This will enable in-space production of hybrid components and electronics, which could prove invaluable on long-duration space missions.
5. Rapid Development of Aerospace-Grade Alloys
The development of new high-performance alloys is another significant breakthrough made possible by metal 3D printing. Aerospace-grade metal alloys perfectly demonstrate how 3D printing technologies have driven material innovation.
NASA’s GRX-810 is a great example. Tailored specifically for aerospace applications, GRX-810 can withstand temperatures of over 1093 degrees Celsius. It is also twice as strong, more than three times as flexible and 1,000 times more durable than existing alloys.
Compared to traditional manufacturing methods, 3D printed metal parts can be produced and tested much faster, at a lower cost. This allows companies like NASA to accelerate the development of new high-performance materials that may shape the future of aerospace.
Why Choose LPE for Custom Metal 3D Printing?
If you are interested in custom metal 3D printing, LPE can help. We offer both standard and high- resolution direct metal laser sintering, with fast lead times of 5-10 days. Accurate, high-quality and cost-effective, our metal 3D printing service is ideal for rapid prototyping and low-volume production. We offer a complete contract manufacturing service and qualification route that we have developed in conjunction with the standards ASTM/ISO F3301 and FF3302.
Choose from a range of high-performance materials with superb mechanical properties, including stainless steel, aluminium and titanium. We also offer several post-processing options including heat treatment and advanced surface finishing.
To discuss your next project with our experts, contact LPE today. Alternatively, request a quote here.