starliner iss docking

Boeing space taxis to be constructed from 600 3D-printed parts

Boeing’s Starliner space taxis will be partially constructed from 3D printed parts after the airplane company hired Oxford Performance Materials to build some key components.

The company is set to make about 600 3D-printed parts for the Starliners (pictured above), which are manned capsules designed to accommodate seven passengers for missions to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

Boeing’s award of the parts for its flagship space program is part of a strategic bet that printed plastics can perform flawlessly even under the extreme stress of a rocket launch and sub-zero temperatures of space.

The project offers further evidence of a shift in 3D printing from making prototypes to commercial production of high-grade parts for space ships, aircraft engines and other critical equipment.

Last month the company also unveiled new lightweight spacesuits specifically designed for passengers travelling in the Starliners. 

The 3D-printed parts should help Boeing to lower costs and save weight on each seven-seat capsule, compared with traditional metal and plastic manufacturing, Larry Varholak, president of Oxford’s aerospace business, said in an interview.

“What really makes it valuable to NASA and Boeing is this material is as strong as aluminium at significantly less weight,” he said. Boeing said the weight savings on Oxford’s parts is about 60 per cent compared with traditional manufacturing.

Mock up of the Starliner perched atop a rocket primed for lift-off

Boeing is building three Starliner capsules under a $4.2bn (£3.4bn) NASA contract. Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building a competing capsule under a $2.6bn NASA contract.

Oxford has already shipped parts for the Starliner. The plastic it uses, known as PEKK, also resists fire and radiation, according to Oxford. Boeing declined to say how much of the capsule Oxford’s parts represent.

“It’s a significant fraction of the Starliner from the aspects of design, assembly and reliability of high integrity parts,” said Leo Christodoulou, director of structures and materials engineering at Boeing. “Using Oxford’s materials takes out a lot of cost.”

Despite its promise and potential sales, customers and investors need to be convinced by repeatable results from printed plastics.

“We’re still in the ‘show me’ stage,” Oxford Chief Executive Scott DeFelice said in an interview. “If you don’t show me the data, I’m not going to believe you.”

Oxford, based in South Windsor, Connecticut, started as a materials science company in 2000 and added 3D printing in 2006. It also makes aircraft parts and cranial and facial implants, as well as replacement human vertebrae.

In 2012 it delved into aerospace and defence. Working with NASA, Northrop Grumman Corp and incubator America Makes, it demonstrated that printed PEKK could handle temperatures from minus 300 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit among other qualities.

“It’s everything from brackets supporting the propulsion system to internal structures for the air revitalisation system,” Varholak said of the parts for Boeing’s Starliner.

Printing parts is often faster and less expensive than traditional forging, machining or moulding. It requires minimal tooling and touch labour and allows companies to keep a “digital inventory” of parts, printing as needed, said Terry Wohlers, chief executive of consulting firm Wohlers Associates, which has tracked additive manufacturing for more than 20 years.

Aerospace is a “near perfect fit” for 3D printing because it involves complex, expensive parts made in relatively low volumes, he said.

The Starliner is due to blast off for the first time in June 2018 from Cape Canaveral, and carry its first crew in August 2018. It will be launched on an Atlas V rocket supplied by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

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