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3D Printing Makes its Move into Production
August 13th, 2014
Robert L. Mitchell, Computer World
August 13th, 2014
When NASA's Juno satellite blasted off for Jupiter, the 3D printed parts in its final assembly represented just one small step toward manufacturer Lockheed Martin's goal to eventually build an entire spacecraft using additive manufacturing technology. The launch also signified one giant leap toward the use of 3D printing in the aerospace firm's manufacturing processes here on earth.
Other businesses are adopting 3D printing in production, too. (See the related blog entry about Ford Racing's use of 3D printing.)
IT, in response, is buckling up for the ride.
The lighter, lower-cost 3D printed parts used in Juno helped to prove that additive manufacturing technology, which builds objects by applying materials in successive layers, was ready to move beyond just prototyping. "The parts performed beautifully," says Slade Gardner, a fellow for advanced manufacturing and materials in Lockheed Martin's Space Systems division. But they were just "proto-parts" for one satellite.
Now the aerospace giant is preparing to use 3D printing processes to manufacture production parts for other aircraft and spacecraft. "We're validating the process for production, and we're on target to complete those activities within the next few years -- maybe sooner," Gardner says.
Curtis Carson, head of research and technology for industrial systems in the Manufacturing Engineering Centre of Competence at Airbus, says the aircraft manufacturer has already begun using 3D printing to produce a seat belt mold as a spare part for the A310 jet, after the subcontractor that was manufacturing the mold went bankrupt.
And it plans to start using 3D printed plastic parts for the A350 aircraft by early 2015. "Even with small components we'll see around 50% weight savings and a cost savings of 60 to 70% on production parts," he says.
Traditionally, 3D printing has been used mostly for rapid prototyping -- to build early design concepts and prototypes to assess "form, fit and function," says Terry Wohlers, president of Wohlers Associates, a 3D printing consultancy. "The next frontier for 3D printing is actual manufacturing, producing parts that go into the final product."