It was probably only a matter of time before the idea of using 3D printing in aerospace applications would catch on, given the growing buzz about it the world over. It appears that time has come.
The Verge reports that NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) are jumping on the 3D bandwagon and will be "actively pursuing 3D-printed metal components for use in spacecraft, planes, and even nuclear fusion applications."
Over the summer, NASA tested a 3D printed rocket engine component during an engine firing that generated a record 20,000 pounds of thrust. "This successful test of a 3-D printed rocket injector brings NASA significantly closer to proving this innovative technology can be used to reduce the cost of flight hardware," Chris Singer, director of the Engineering Directorate at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said in a press release.
The ESA and the European Commission have launched the AMAZE project with 28 industrial and educational partners in an effort to perfect the printing of space-quality metal components.
The ESA said in a press release:
3D printing is getting ready to revolutionise space travel. ESA is paving the way for 3D-printed metals to build high-quality, intricate shapes with massive cost savings...
AMAZE aims to put the first 3D metal printer on the International Space Station allowing astronauts to produce tools and new structures on demand.
The project envisages printing entire satellites and using the technology for missions to the Moon and Mars... To get to that future, ESA is looking at five metal additive manufacturing processes
David Jarvis, the ESA's head of new materials and energy research, said in the release, "We are focusing on serious engineering components made of very high-tech alloys. We are using lasers, electron beams and even plasma to melt them."
Also from the ESA release:
A quartet of pilot factories – each one employing different metallic 3D printing methods – are being set up in Germany, Italy, Norway and the UK. In parallel, a full industrial supply chain is being established for metallic 3D printing, incorporating feedstock alloys, printing equipment, finishing techniques, metrology and control software.
Jon Meyer, additive layer manufacturing research team leader at EADS Innovation Works, said in the release that 3D printing requires high-quality materials, a repeatable process, and extensive supply chain support. And that's the rub, isn't it? How quickly can the supply chain be developed to support this new field of study?
Finding new ways to use 3D printing seems to dovetail well with the aerospace sector's long history of cool research, but it's interesting that the industry seems tickled pink by the potential use and cost-effectiveness of additive manufacturing. The industry usually does not adopt the technology flavor of the day, and given its highly technical component requirements and long product life cycles, product development investment usually spans many years.
So maybe now is the time to ask some questions. What kind of strategic supply chain plans are electronic companies developing to include 3D-printed products into the design, sourcing, and purchasing process? How will raw material and traditional component sourcing be impacted? How will the supply chain evolve to meet the needs of the most demanding applications needed on Earth and fit for space?
How do you see it?