Aircraft, Rockets, and Satellites: 3 Uses of 3D Printing in Aerospace

3D printing can bring down costs, time to market, and object weight

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03/18/2022

Christine Dunne

 

When it comes to 3D printing, the aerospace industry is a good match. 3D printing can bring down costs, speed up production times, and produce designs previously not possible. This blog post will discuss some specific 3D aerospace projects that are underway.

 

3D Printed Aircraft Parts

Companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Airbus are increasingly incorporating 3D printed parts into their aircraft. For example, Lockheed Martin’s F16 fighter aircraft received approval from the US Airforce for a GE engine with a 3D printed metal sump pump cover—making it the first 3D printed engine component to be qualified by any arm of the US Department of Defense.

 

In another example, Airbus plans to use 3D printing for more aircraft components now that it has given clearance to Materialise to make flight-ready parts using EOS laser sintering technology along with EOS’s PA 2241 FR, a flame-retardant polyamide. This approval can be applied across Airbus technology; applications include aircraft interior air ducts and brackets.

 

As for Boeing, the company is developing the Boeing 777X (based on the best-selling Boeing 777)—which will integrate over 300 3D-printed parts in its GE9X engine from General Electric. These include the fan blades and their enclosures (which were made from carbon fiber composites, reducing their weight and the number of blades) and metal fuel nozzles (which reduce fuel emissions, resulting in lower costs).

 

The upcoming Boeing 777X will include over 300 3D-printed engine parts

 

 

3D Printed Rockets

In the space flight branch of aerospace, NASA and private companies are working to build rocket engines (and even entire rockets in the case of Relativity Space) with fewer parts—which is a key capability of 3D printing and a way to reduce production time and costs. Using selective laser sintering as well as the laying down and melting of metal powder (for example, Inconel copper super alloy power that can withstand high temperatures), parts are built up layer by layer.

 

Multiple parts can be printed as one unified part in just days; with fewer nuts, bolts, and welds required, the rocket’s weight is reduced. If the rocket proves faulty during a test, changes can be made to the 3D modeling software for a new rocket and another test can be quickly set up.

 

Relativity Space is planning the first launch of its 80-foot-tall Terran 1 vehicle this year. While applications may initially include the launching of satellites to space, it has a long-term goal of settling people on Mars with the help of intelligent automation and lightweight, compact 3D printing.

 

3D Printed Satellites

Also in the outer space realm, satellites containing 3D printed parts are growing in number to reduce costs, accelerate production, and increase performance in many cases. In fact, a recent SpaceNews article states that nearly all satellites built today have at least some 3D printed parts—though most are still fairly simple mechanical bracketing systems for keeping a spacecraft’s structure together.

 

Boeing is one company using 3D printing for satellites (for items like high-performance heat exchangers, mechanisms, structures, and passive microwave devices). When it comes to smallsats (or smaller satellites), the company has shown that 3D printed buses (also known as satellite bodies) offer a far faster cycle time for production and are about 30% less costly than traditional bus structures.

 

And plans are in the works for satellites that are entirely 3D printed, with Fleet Space Technologies being one example. The Australian startup, which recently raised over $26 million in a Series B investment round, also announced plans for a second generation-satellite constellation (or group of satellites that work together as a system) that would include the first satellites created entirely though 3D printing.

 

Keypoint Intelligence Opinion

The aerospace sector is a good fit for 3D printing given the complexity of aircraft and space-based machines, the high cost associated with producing this technology, as well as governmental interest and funding for aerospace research and 3D printing. That said, it’s clear that widespread research and regulatory approvals are necessary to advance achievements in this area—particularly when it comes to transporting humans as well as national defense efforts. As a result, accomplishments may sometimes seem slow but, overall, the use of 3D printing in this sector is dramatically increasing year by year.

 

For more information on 3D print, head to The Key Point Blog and The Key Point Podcast. Also, stay tuned for some exciting announcements regarding Keypoint Intelligence’s involvement in the 3D print/additive manufacturing space. 

 

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