3D printing is one of the most exciting advances in technology over the past few years. For life in space, 3D printers simply receive designs and print out necessary tools to help astronauts perform quick fixes. Until now, 3D printing in space has always used composite material. However, a UK company has announced the first space-qualified 3D printing material using aluminum. From 3DPrint.com:
Now Airbus Defence and Space in the UK says they’re producing their first space-qualified 3D printed components from aluminum. The parts are the result of a two-year-long research and development program undertaken by the UK National Space Technology Programme via Innovate UK and the UK Space Agency.
The UK team say these new 3D printed components cannot be manufactured using conventional manufacturing methods, and they include a structural bracket built using aerospace-grade aluminum alloy. The Airbus Group has started using ALM (additive layering manufacturing) for tooling and prototyping parts for test flights and for parts that will fly on commercial aircraft. The company says components produced with ALM are beginning to appear on the A350 XWB the jetliners in the A300 and A310 line.
Eurostar E3000 Copyright Airbus Defence and Space Ltd 2015 renderingThe first flight-qualified ALM part — a titanium alloy bracket from Airbus Defence and Space — is already flying aboard the Atlantic Bird 7 telecom satellite, and the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle “Atlante” features a 3D printed air intake.
The space-qualified part in question, made as a single piece via laser melting, weighs 35% less than the previous bracket. The part it replaces was made up of four separate pieces and included 44 rivets. In comparison, the additively-manufactured piece which replaces it is now 40% stiffer and no waste results from the process as would be were it created by conventional machining.
3D printing with aluminum opens the door to many manufacturing possibilities, from aerospace and beyond. 3D printing can also go to DIY makers too, and aluminum also creates many opportunities for start-ups, garage engineers, and artists for structurally sound items. If it works in space, it can certainly work on the ground!