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2022 Predictions: 3D Printing is Transforming the Aerospace and Space Industry

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Advances in 3D printing are driving current trends in real solutions for real-world applications in aerospace and space manufacturing. Although the airline and aerospace industries were among the first to embrace additive manufacturing (AM) for research and development initiatives and on a production scale, the space sector is speeding up 3D printing adoption. Moreover, by driving advances that helped create complex, customized, and one-of-a-kind parts, or even entire rocket engines, the space sector is paving the way for the future of 3D printing beyond Earth.

From corporate giants, like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and SpaceX, to early-stage ventures, companies worldwide are leveraging 3D printing hardware, materials, and software, while driving top technology investment in AM. As a result, in 2021, we saw entire industries embrace 3D printing technology, put in place by the pandemic, and 2022 is on track to reap the rewards.

3DPrint.com spoke with five industry experts to learn more about the trends in 2021 and what’s in store for the AM in aerospace and space in 2022. The digital thread, a continued disruption of the space sector, industry collaborations, and increased concern about sustainability are all on AM experts’ minds.

3D printing is revolutionizing aircraft production. As a result, in 2021, we saw aerospace original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) investing in large-scale AM machines and projects to enhance high performance, mission-critical metal components to achieve previously unheard of part consolidation requirements for new-generation aircraft.

“In 2021, we saw the AM industry recognize that predictive modeling is key to first-time quality while enabling the digital thread is critical for scale and controlling quality,” Melissa Orme, vice president of Boeing AM, said. “That recognition led to an increase in the maturation and emergence of software companies for modeling of the AM process, for creating the digital twin, and platforms for archiving data for the digital thread.”

Like many of its competitors, Boeing kept its AM division quite active in 2021, establishing a fully controlled distributed 3D printing network to remotely and securely produce parts on EOS 3D printers directly and 3D printing aerospace-grade materials to make components for its aircraft. Orme points out that the company remains focused on the digital aspects of AM, having already connected approximately 40% of its value stream to the digital thread and guiding AM builds with simulations for first-time success.

“Our automatic data streaming is archived into our AM database in a common format that makes it accessible and usable to perform our AM analytics to continuously optimize our value stream.”

Boeing illustrates 3D printing design freedom.

3D printing design freedom: the ability to print parts opens the possibility to create more efficient mechanical designs. Image courtesy of Boeing.

3D printing materials for aerospace have seen immense progress. Avi Reichental, CEO and co-founder of Nexa3D, described that while metal 3D printing takes much of the spotlight in aerospace, polymers have a large and growing market here. Arguing that many aerospace manufacturers that incorporate metal AM into their operations also invest in polymer solutions as AM on the whole becomes more familiar to them. Even more so, having a larger portfolio of advanced manufacturing solutions at hand opens up more opportunities for the next generation of aerospace manufacturing.

“We will continue to see the lightweighting capabilities of AM come into play in aerospace, including for cabin and internal components that have more human contact,” believes Reichental.

Nexa3D customer experience center with NXE 400 3D systems.

Nexa3D customer experience center with NXE 400 3D systems. Image courtesy of Nexa3D.

Velo3D’s founder and CEO Benny Buller has a very particular view of how 3D printing for aerospace will evolve next year. According to the AM expert, Design for Additive Manufacturing, or DfAM––the process of adjusting a design to make it cheaper, faster, or more effective––has forced aerospace engineers to make concessions in the name of manufacturability rather than designing the best part possible for next-generation systems. He points out that the promise of AM has always been to enable design freedom rather than restrict it, helping aviation and space organizations continue to achieve new heights of innovation. However, he believes that promise was broken.

“In 2022, these engineers will see the shackles of DfAM removed, allowing them to print the parts they want and need, including lighter parts, better performing parts, and parts that consolidate many pieces into a single component. It will also allow aerospace companies to reproduce legacy parts that cannot be procured through their traditional supply chain without having to design them for additive manufacturing. Once we remove these limitations, engineers will make new aerospace systems from scratch that optimize performance and are not limited by the constraints of what was once impossible,” reveals Buller.

Bringing the full power of designing for the best part possible is key to moving 3D printing for aerospace and space forward, and Buller is not the only one who sees Dfam as constricting for the field. In 2021, other industry experts have also expressed the need to abandon Dfam and embrace design freedom.

XB-1 will fly with Titanium 3D printed components manufactured on Velo3D’s Sapphire system.

XB-1 will fly with Titanium 3D printed components manufactured on Velo3D’s Sapphire system. Image courtesy of Boom Supersonic and Velo3D

Aside from the design freedom that Buller is craving, Orme also predicts that in 2022 sustainability will be a significant focus of attention. More manufacturers are adopting sustainable 3D printing practices, but many hope to take it to the next level. For example, Boeing recently launched an AM sustainability initiative to quantitatively examine the sustainability benefits of different manufacturing process scenarios and parts types.

It’s also doubling down on recycling its powder and filter condensate, investigating the recycling of support structures, becoming smarter in designing the parts so that support structures aren’t needed, and using simulations to reduce build iterations that consume power and create waste. According to Orme, customers and regulators’ demand for more sustainable manufacturing will drive an even greener 3D printing technology.

AM uses much less material than most traditional manufacturing processes, so the front end of the value stream – mining raw material, converting to a printable material and transporting to point of printing – is greatly reduced, thereby reducing the carbon footprint of those aspects of the value stream,” says Orme. “AM also allows optimization of the part so that it is lighter weight and can perform the intended function with a smaller volumetric space, which means AM can be utilized to optimize the vehicle so that it is more streamlined, reduces drag, and requires less fuel in service.”

In aerospace, companies like Boeing, Airbus, Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon are reaping the benefits of producing tens of thousands of 3D printed parts for aircraft, so are space companies. 3D printing can solve complex engineering issues and manufacture specialized parts, and we have seen in 2021 a surge in AM for space. For example, Relativity Space co-founder Jordan Noone estimates that every new rocket engine entering the market in 2021 has 3D printed components on it. It’s the new baseline for engines, he says.

The aerospace engineer also saw many startups standing up to tackle next-generation powder bed printer development, and elements of the powder bed printing ecosystem, like material development, post-processing, and inspection.

Relativity Space co-founder Jordan Noone.

Relativity Space co-founder Jordan Noone (right). Image courtesy of Relativity Space.

With so many space technologies now using 3D printing as part of its manufacturing processes, we have also seen a lot of collaborations with pure-play AM firms. In the last year, this has led to a greater adaptation of 3D printing in the space industry, says EOS North America’s Senior Manager of Metal Technology, Ankit Saharan. Internally, EOS had considerable activity from a purchasing standpoint, so Saharan expects continued use growth in space adaptations as we head into the new year.

“We are seeing diversification into newer application areas and verticals like semiconductors, consumer electronics, and renewable energy, with a renewed focus on product development and production––some of which can be attributed to supply chain concerns arising from the pandemic. We expect the 2021 trends to continue into 2022, with some additional growth opportunities, especially as new materials continue coming online. For one, copper and copper alloys are becoming a key material and will only increase in importance in the AM industry as it is crucial for many highly engineered applications,” explains Saharan.

While copper can be tricky to work with, the EOS claims it has perfected the processes required for 3D printing success. By 2022, the company expects a revitalized interest in tool steels like H13 and pure metals like pure Nickel and Tungsten for various applications.

EOS North America’s Senior Manager of Metal Technology, Ankit Saharan

EOS North America’s Senior Manager of Metal Technology, Ankit Saharan. Image courtesy of EOS.

In a broader sense, Noone expects to see an oversaturated launch market with many players competing for their spot in the pecking order in 2022. That means lots of launchers flying for the first time, and printing could be a key edge for many of them.

“The 3D printing industry will witness continued sub-par digital engineering tools around part design, specifically for printing. As an industry, we use file formats meant for computers from the 1970s, we use CAD tools developed before printing was invented, and the workflow to bring a part from design to loaded in the printer is immensely laborious and manual,” explains Noone.

Noticing current tools are insufficient, the expert has embarked on a new journey with  VC firm Embedded Ventures––which he co-founded with Jenna Bryant––focusing a third of the startup portfolio on digital engineering tools to provide solutions for advanced hardware design, including the company it incubated, KittyCAD. These advances will help drive further 3D printing adoption in the sector.

“3D printing is inevitable, especially in space, where the value alignment is so strong. Space parts want to be lightweight, and the lighter the printed parts are, the cheaper and faster they are to make. Cost and lead time go down the more optimized a product is. That’s unheard of anywhere else,” says Noone. “As more and more space companies receive financing, iteration speed is key. Investing in iteration speed through flexible tools like printing will become even more essential, as the sector becomes further saturated.”

At this pace, in the next decade, the aerospace and space industry will continue to reimagine itself while driving growth and boosting value, adopting current trends in AM, and driving further investment. As 3D printing evolves, it will fuel innovation for aircraft manufacturers and off-Earth visionaries. To learn more about this topic, you can attend the AM in Aviation and Space vertical, sponsored by EOS, at the Additive Manufacturing Strategies 2022 event taking place from March 1 – 3 in New York and online.

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