Additive Manufacturing in the Aerospace Industry

Additive manufacturing (AM) and 3D printing technology have thrived in the aerospace industry, in which the method of printing components from a CAD file has been responsible for the construction of different aircrafts and space stations. Additive manufacturing is very desirable for aerospace, since its utilization of immense customization allows for the creation of lightweight manufacturing parts at relatively low costs, while reducing waste of rare and expensive materials.

Aerospace Technology

The aerospace industry was the first to adopt additive manufacturing, and it has been actively using the technology for the greater part of the past thirty years. Unlike traditional methods of manufacturing, which often require the use of additional materials to support the structure of the finished product, AM has no need for superfluous components and materials that are intended merely for support during fabrication. Constructing components from a CAD image allows for precision work to create items that are lightweight without reducing the stability, something that is very beneficial for aerospace.

The high cost of materials used for aerospace construction makes it ideal to limit the amount of waste from their manufacturing. For example, titanium, a metal commonly used for many air and space components, is priced (as of late 2015) at $4.20/kg, a value excessively higher than other metals used in production, such as steel or aluminum. A lighter finished product often means that additive manufacturing uses less material, leading to a significant reduction in waste leftover. The tool-less process uses the majority of the material needed, whether it is plastic or metal.

The customization possible on any single object produced through additive manufacturing also contributes to the reduction of the cost of aerospace projects and their maintenance. AM can cut costs at the initial stages of a project if it is used for testing prototypes. Before NASA’s Curiosity rover was sent to explore Mars, the parts used for its testing procedures were 3D printed to simplify the replacement of its unique components, reducing overall time and money. Customization is also ideal for handling components of outdated and discontinued aerospace models. If a single part were to break, pursuing replacement parts designed and fabricated with traditional manufacturing would be incredibly costly, likely requiring the replacement of entire systems. 3D printing can easily provide a single part designed to the exact specifications of the older component.

Mars Rover Curiosity
Rendering of the Mars rover Curiosity

However, additive manufacturing is not just limited to testing and replacement, and has been used in the production of finished goods for aerospace. This is ideal for contracts and projects that require a limited amount of models that vary in specifications. Additive manufacturing gives these projects economies of scale that reduce the overall cost. The rover Curiosity was not only tested using 3D printing, but the completed robotic rover contains about 70 parts that were printed with the technology that now travel with it as it explores the Martian dunes to determine the planet’s habitability.

NASA has listed .stl files of Curiosity and other projects on their website that are currently available for 3D printing for the public. Anyone who has access to a 3D printer can get his or her own miniature model of these different space projects. While these small models are not the exact ones in space, they still serve as a symbol here on Earth that additive manufacturing has spread throughout the Solar System, and is an essential component for its exploration. Additive manufacturing components can conform to the current aerospace standards, while simplifying fabrication and even enhancing their overall quality. 
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