Realistically, it isn’t 3D printing technology that will change the way products are manufactured, but rather it will be advancements in materials science. There are already more than a half dozen 3D printing technologies, each with advantages and disadvantages that make no one technology right for every job. Most 3D printing technologies are actually decades old, and little has changed about them since being originally developed. Once the patents started to fall into public hands, the technology got cheaper, and was often simplified and streamlined, but fundamentally there has been little in terms of dramatically altering how the technology works.
What has helped make 3D printing more common and reliable has been advancements in the science behind materials. New materials are regularly being developed that address many of the issues common among those who use 3D printers regularly. Products like wash away support materials, filaments that can be annealed for higher durability, flexible materials, and even materials that reduce striation marks by engineering the materials’ surface tension when melted have all been developed in the past few years. 3D printer manufacturers have willingly stepped up to optimize their printers to use more of these advanced materials, largely developed for FDM or SLA 3D printers.
As metal 3D printing becomes cheaper and more commonly integrated into large-scale industrial workflows, manufacturers are starting to look at developing new materials and metal 3D printing technologies that can change the scope of what metal 3D printing is capable of. This week French civilian aerospace developer Airbus published their filing for a patent for a new 3D printing process that could revolutionize large-scale manufacturing and even lead to the ability to 3D print entire airplanes. The process relies on considerable materials knowledge and leverages how the freshly 3D printed items will respond to the internal stresses that occur while they are cooling.
The process would use selective laser sintering-like technologies to melt multiple materials together using powdered metals like titanium and aluminium. It would start with a shell-like structure that would have the metal powders deposited onto it, then lasers would heat the shell structure and the powder materials, causing them to melt together and bond into a single part. As the part cools, internal stress within the newly joined layers will cause the entire part to bend or curve in a predetermined direction. This is because the shell-structure and the metals would cool, and ultimately expand or constrict, at different rates. Once the part would be completely solid it would have a forced structural integrity that would make it stronger than traditionally manufactured parts.
3D printed airplane components like a fuselage, wings or doors would be able to withstand the intense conditions of an operating aircraft without losing any of their aerodynamic characteristics. The 3D printed parts would also be lighter, use less material to make and be structurally more sound. The stresses that would be intentionally introduced into the parts would actually add more stability and structural support. For instance, the floor panels of an airplane’s cargo bay could be engineered to actually become more stable as more weight is placed on top of them. It would be the very stress points that were introduced during the 3D printing process that would end up making the floor stronger by forcing it into a shape that is more stable and rigid.
The entire process sounds incredibly counterintuitive; however, it does have a lot of science to back it up. For centuries the technique was used by furniture makers to strengthen their designs. The concept is that when the stress points are forced to deform or alter a component, it would be done in such a way as to put pressure on another part of the piece of furniture. That part of the furniture would then provide more strength and stability than the stress points that are being exploited, essentially nullifying those weaknesses.
The new Airbus technology sounds similar in concept to 4D printing, a process that uses carefully mixed materials and the component’s internal geometry to alter its shape or configuration depending on a set of external stimuli. However, other than what is seen in the patent filing there aren’t a lot of specifics as to how exactly the technology would work. Of course this is just a patent, so we won’t even know if we’ll see it in action, but it certainly sounds like an interesting idea. You can read the patent application submitted by Airbus here, and see some more diagrams of the process here. What do you think? Discuss further in the Completely 3D Printed Airplane forum over at 3DPB.com.