A 3D printed A320 nacelle hinge demonstrator in the front and a conventional nacelle hinge in the background

Metal 3D printing promises revolution in aerospace

3D printing of elaborate metallic parts capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and enormous mechanical loads could change the future of the aerospace industry.

Coordinated by the European Space Agency (ESA), the Amaze project, introduced today in London’s Science Museum, brings together top research centres and aerospace companies from across Europe in a bid to lay out a knowledge framework and set an infrastructure base to make metal 3D printing an integral part of the industry.

“So far, 3D printing has mostly been about plastics, which is natural, as they are much simpler materials to deal with,” said David Jarvis, head of Materials and Energy Research at ESA and the coordinator of the project. “However, if you want to use 3D printing for advanced industrial applications, such as in aerospace, you need to look into metals and that’s much more demanding.”

Unlike plastics that melt at some 100 degrees Celsius, aluminum-based alloys require heating up to 660 degrees Celsius while advance tungsten-based materials need up to 3,500 degrees Celsius – some 80 per cent of the surface temperature of the Sun.

Apart from that, to be able to use 3D printed parts in spacecraft, aircraft and other applications that require 100 per cent reliability, researchers need to gather enough understanding about the behaviour of 3D printed structures. However, the team believes 3D printing has the potential to replace conventional casting, forging or machining of parts in the aerospace industry and introduce completely new level of performance.

“It’s very attractive for a number of reasons. I think redesigning components is probably the most interesting, we can remove some of the design constraints that we have with the standard technology for metal work and we can completely redesign components in a way that was never done before,” said Jarvis.

3D printing or additive manufacturing also promises reducing cost as it minimises the amount of wasted material.

“3D printing it the green technology at its best – it consumes a lot less energy, you only need the exact amount of material, you don’t waste anything,” said Franco Ongaro, Director of Technical and Quality Management at ESA.

The project, supported by ESA and the European Commission has been awarded £17m of funding for the next five years, at the end of which the team would like to establish five factories across Europe setting up the framework of metal 3D printing infrastructure for Europe’s aerospace industry. One of these factories is expected to open in Coventry, UK.

In the next months, ESA plans to conduct first experiments on parabolic flights, simulating the microgravity environment, with the ultimate goal of sending a metal 3D printer to the International Space Station, printing spare parts in orbit to save transportation cost.

There are other, more Earth-bound applications eagerly awaiting the advancements in metal 3D printing. The UK’s Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is one of the 28 partners working on the Amaze project, hoping to find new solutions for applications leading eventually to a demonstration nuclear fusion power plant.

“On a very small scale, you can make bespoke alloys which may have some very interesting characteristics,” explained Steven Cowley, the Director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. “For example tungsten – which we use very often is very brittle, so if you can make it a bit more ductile that would be much better for applications that require a higher thermal gradient.”

The project partners are excited about the the new paths and avenues metal 3D printing will open to the industry and don't hesitate to say the onset of the third industrial revolution is just few years away. 


Watch  a full interview with ESA's David Jarvis about metal 3D printing in weightlessness and the aspirations of the AMAZE project:


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