At this year’s EMO exhibition in Hannover, 3D Systems was showcasing its additive manufacturing technology. Ed Hill discovered more about how this process is being applied to aerospace applications.
There’s no doubt that additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing as it is often called, is beginning to make big waves in the world of aerospace.
One company at the forefront of this technology is 3D Systems which not only makes printing machines but also develops the software to design, model and build parts.
The technology most evidently useful for aerospace manufacturers is direct metal printing (DMP). DMP builds high quality complex metal parts from 3D CAD data. In this process a high precision laser is directed to metal powder particles to selectively build up thin horizontal metal layers one by one. This allows for the production of metal parts with challenging geometries, not possible using traditional subtractive or casting technologies.
Dirk Dombert, vice president of software sales EMEA at 3D Systems, says: “At 3D Systems we believe we are moving from a time when 3D printing has been used primarily for prototyping to full scale production.
“We have developed different technologies of additive manufacturing both in metals and plastics. The most important aspects that differentiates us from competition is that we also offer a complete suite of workflow related software. Our 3DXpert software is the driver for our metal printers and 3DSprint is the driver for our plastic printers. We consider ourselves to be a solution provider rather than a 3D printer company.
“All software packages have been developed to print 3D parts fast and accurately. To cover the metrology part of workflow we complement our offering with ControlX software. Customers that have a need for reverse engineering can rely on DesignX and Wrap to get their jobs complete.
Undoubtedly, additive technologies offer engineers many more solutions when it comes to manufacturing parts optimised for their performance.
“Many of the old restrictions imposed on manufacturing will be a thing of the past,” Dombert continues. “Industries such as healthcare and aerospace will benefit from engineers’ freedom to design parts with lattice structures. Lightweight construction will become a big thing. Just saving 1kg on an aircraft will have big impact on both operating cost and sustainability. This is only one example of adding value by combining our superior printer technology with 3DXpert software. We can import a CAD file, position a part on tray, generate support geometry, create lattice structures, slice the part, create a scan path, simulate the build process, print the part, and perform post print finishing. We provide a unique solution to make production real.”
One of the most useful elements to 3D Systems software is the ability to simulate a design’s performance before it is actually printed.
“We can operate stress analyses processes before printing. Once a displacement is recognised we can easily adjust geometries or redefine lattice structures. In addition we validate support designs before printing, analyse stress throughout build, locate areas of material failure and optimize design, predict deformation and calculate the compensated model. The goal is to minimise built failure before actually manufacturing.”
Dombert says that another advantage of direct metal printing is the ability to transform an assembly made up of several parts into one component.
“I already referred to part design. Traditional manufacturing often uses assemblies. Different parts are produced and put together. 3D printing has the potential to overcome this time consuming process by simply printing one part.”
However, introducing additive parts into an industry as heavily regulated as aerospace is not easy.
“The Aerospace industry is a demanding and challenging one for good reasons. There is zero tolerance in terms of quality, reliability and repeatability related to production parts. We are prepared to set up proven processes that avoid failure and bugs. We believe our combination of software and printers can perfectly match aviation requirements.” Dombert asserts.
Conversely, although aerospace may have some reservations about additive technology, it also offers some feasible solutions that can benefit it enormously.
“The aerospace industry and healthcare sector are fully exploring AM technologies,” Dombert states. “But if you introduce new technologies you have to prove that you add value to workflow and bring return on investment in a reasonable timeframe. Aerospace engineers are very keen and open minded, they are early adopters of new technologies. They see the huge potential of 3D printing solutions. The aerospace sector is investing heavily in additive technology. They have a clear strategy about their future setup in production. Many of them are building new facilities in which to house large numbers of 3D printers and additive technology is complementing traditional technologies already.”
In a recent design challenge a 3D Systems ProX DMP 320 printer was used to produce a titanium aerospace bracket for Thales Alenia Space. The new bracket, used on geostationary satellites, was 25% lighter, had a better stiffness-to-weight ratio and was completed in the half the time traditional manufacturing processes could achieve. The project was successfully completed using Dassault Systèmes topology optimisation software and 3D System’s On Demand Manufacturing (ODM) service.
Dombert says: “The ODM team is our first link to potential customers. We produce parts on demand. Once we receive CAD files and specifications such as material, tolerances and delivery time our work starts. As a result we deliver both the desired part and our expertise. This way we introduce the full bandwidth of technologies to projects. In many cases it’s a combination of additive and conventional technologies. The 3D Systems offering is unique in a diverse AM market. We offer the complete range of printing technologies, materials, complementary software solutions and production capacity.
The skills factor
There’s a growing consensus that additive processes have the potential to revolutionise production, not only in aerospace but across manufacturing, however, Dombert points out that like any manufacturing method it still requires input, skills and training from people for it to work effectively.
“Companies can buy all necessary accessories to start with AM. Still it’s hard to find experienced and skilled employees. Many industries are currently ramping up their AM capacities. Labour force has been identified as a bottleneck. Even though vocational training centres and universities offer training and student courses in additive manufacturing we currently have a shortfall here. 3D Systems supports universities with equipment and software to tackle the problem.”
So, although it’s still early days for 3D printing in aerospace manufacturing, Dombert believes there are no barriers that can’t be overcome when it comes to its implementation.
“We are ready to assist and make 3D production real. We are in control in hardware, software and related services. The number of 3D System solutions usually outmatches customer’s problems.
“Future production will include both additive and subtractive processes. Lower volume production parts found on aircraft can easily be optimised for weight/performance ratios.
“Just think about the potential to manufacture a turbine blade additively with full freedom in terms of cooling channel design. The gas jet leaves the combustion chamber and hits a turbine typically with temperature of more than 1,500°C. Cooling down to 600°C is a must. For solutions think additive!”