The U.S. space shuttle had over 2.5 million parts—an incredible feat of engineering, but also a staggering number of pieces that could break. Recently, aerospace companies have been embracing 3D printing to help mitigate those risks, as a single piece of metal shaped into a completed part is less vulnerable than multiple pieces fitted together. “We want to get to 1,000 moving parts, fewer than a car,” Tim Ellis, co-founder and CEO of Relativity Space, told Businessweek. “The 3D printing and automation of rockets is inevitable.”
In June 2017, Relativity Space successfully completed a pilot project to 3D-print and then test-fire a rocket engine at a facility run by NASA, the U.S. space agency, in the U.S. state of Mississippi. The team is now working on a US$10 million project to print a rocket that will be 90 feet (27 meters) tall, 7 feet (2 meters) wide, and capable of carrying about 1 metric ton to orbit. The project is scheduled to be complete by mid-2020, with an expected launch date of 2021.
And Relativity Space is no outlier in finding new ways to use 3D printing on aerospace projects. “Aerospace companies have been using additive manufacturing for many years to create prototypes, but in the last three to five years it has also become very promising for specialized tooling and direct manufacture of parts,” says Joerg Bromberger, who holds a doctorate degree and is senior manager of global manufacturing and supply chain service line, McKinsey & Co., Berlin, Germany.
Additive manufacturing allows project teams to print parts that reduce lead times typical of conventional methods of manufacturing, says Terry Wohlers, head of Wohlers Associates, an additive manufacturing consulting firm in Fort Collins, Colorado, USA. He estimates that, when machining parts, up to 90 percent of materials become scrap.
And because multiple parts can be consolidated into a single, printed component (such as for Relativity Space's rocket engine), teams can realize significant cost savings, Mr. Wohlers says. “It means a significant reduction in part numbers, inventory, assembly and certification paperwork.” Designing for additive manufacturing can also make more organic-looking shapes, with improved strength-to-weight ratios. This can reduce the amount of material required without compromising durability. “These elaborate structures can be a fraction of the weight of conventional parts but just as strong,” he says.
Giant Domes and Toilet Seats
The potential benefits of additive manufacturing are drawing a crowd. In July, Lockheed Martin wrapped up a project to 3D-print a giant titanium dome for fuel tanks, making it the largest 3D-printed piece to be used in a satellite program. By using additive manufacturing, the project team slashed the schedule from the typical two years to just three months and produced less waste, which also improved material cost.
Boeing has seen similar savings in its early additive manufacturing projects. The company announced in 2017 that it would start using 3D-printed titanium parts, developed in conjunction with Norsk Titanium, in the 787 Dreamliner jet airliner. Titanium is stronger and lighter than aluminum but seven times more costly. Because 3D printing involves far less waste, the project can swap in the more expensive material while cutting up to US$3 million from the cost of each plane. Norsk Titanium announced that these parts will be the first 3D-printed structural titanium to be approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority.
On a smaller scale, the U.S. Air Force has announced a project to develop a 3D-printed toilet seat cover that will cost just US$300 per aircraft, rather than the standard US$10,000. The savings stem from the fact that the printers can create from scratch parts that are no longer in production.
Speed Bumps Ahead
“The aerospace industry believes this technology will be key for many future innovations,” Dr. Bromberger says. But that consensus doesn't mean there aren't obstacles ahead.
—Joerg Bromberger, McKinsey & Co., Berlin, Germany
Aerospace is a highly regulated industry, which means risk appetites can be understandably low. “As with many new technologies, we're seeing resistance to adopt additive manufacturing at a fast pace,” says Dr. Bromberger. “Companies need to build very special expertise and capabilities to take full advantage of the new technology, and the adoption of additive manufacturing into their production and supply chain systems is a multiyear journey.”
To ease the risk, many aerospace companies aren't overhauling their portfolios entirely—but rather adding smaller projects with specialty vendors to help pilot and scale the new production. “It's a good way for bigger companies to conduct their first projects without making major equipment investments,” he says. “It limits their risk in the beginning and offers them the opportunity to gradually build in-house production capacity for future projects, if needed.”—Sarah Fister Gale
The U.S. Air Force announced a project to develop a 3D-printed toilet seat cover that will cost just US$300 per aircraft, rather than the standard US$10,000.