How 3D Printing is Shaking-Up the Aerospace Industry
Is 3D Printing going to become the new normal when it comes to manufacturing for aersospace?
By Josh Moir
8th January 2021, 18:00 GMT
3D Printing has existed for a few decades now but recently it seems poised to go mainstream, with developments in the technology involved in the process along with a multitude of new companies ready to bring 3D Aerospace seems a perfect industry for 3D printing to flourish, due to the complex parts and objects needed for building rockets. This has led many to believe that 3D printing could soon become the new normal when it comes to manufacturing in aersospace.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing begins by designing the object to be printed as a graphic via a CAD program (Computer-Aided Design). These designs are checked thoroughly to ensure there are no flaws and it is common for multiple prototypes of the model to be created as one of the huge benefits of 3D Printing is the ease to produce many prototypes. These designs are then run through what is known as a slicer program in order to conceptualise the model into a 3D image, they also add any necessary columns and fillings to allow the model to become a reality. After this, the 3D printing begins and is controlled via the instructions set out by the slicer software. There are various types of 3D printing depending on what is being printed, however, throughout almost every printing process the printer follows an additive process in which consecutive layers of material are placed on top of each other until the eventual design is created. This unique process of building a design by placing a material rather than cutting out a material allows 3D printers to produce complex objects and designs.
Multiple companies that have the aim to use 3D printing to revolutionize the way that rockets are manufactured. With 3D printing, the price is generally cheaper, lead time quicker and it is far more flexible in what can be manufactured as a result of the additive process. One of these companies is Relativity who has the goal to produce “Rockets built and flown in days instead of years”. Relativity fuse a number of technologies together including 3D Printing, Artificial Intelligence, and autonomous robotics with the goal of rapidly reducing the time to manufacture rockets. Relativity’s CEO has said, “we view 3D printing as the inevitable future of building almost all aerospace products”. The company recently completed a series D funding round that raised $500 million for the company, bringing Relativity to be valued at $2.3 billion. Relativity has managed to manufacture an entire rocket engine with only 3 parts within 9 days, this along with other impressive feats has led the company to be awarded a contract by NASA for June 2022 in which Relativity will place CubeSats into low Earth orbit via its Terran 1 (the world's first fully 3D printed rocket).
Relativity is not the only company looking to bring 3D printing to the manufacturing process of aerospace, Space X has been developing the technology for years and has been using it to manufacture complex parts that cannot be produced using conventional manufacturing techniques. One of the prime examples of this is the SuperDraco Engine Chamber, which is a backup engine that was fully manufactured using 3D Printing. Another company that looking towards developing smaller rockets through 3D Printing is Launcher. Launcher has the goal of developing the world’s most efficient rocket to deliver small satellites to orbit. The company has impressively built the world's biggest 3D printed liquid rocket engine with its partner AMCM.
3D Printing will no doubt continue to become more mainstream in the near future as the technology continues to develop to make the process both cheaper and more efficient. However, it will be a while until we can truly see 3D printing begin to challenge mass manufacturing. This is as a result of the lack of economies of scale which doesn’t currently apply when using 3D printing in manufacturing. This shouldn't stop 3D printing in aerospace and it seems very likely that 3D printing will become the new norm in this industry over the coming years.