For the 3D print companies looking to capture the consumer market, it’s accessibility. Companies are scrambling over each other to be the first to create and patent the device, process or application that makes 3D printing affordable, user friendly, useful and reliable enough for popular day-to-day usage.
For those at the industrial end of the scale, however, the goal is strength: can we mass print metal machine parts capable of withstanding the pressure of operating in a large-scale industrial environment?
Right now, some of the world’s biggest brains are trying to work out how to solve the problems related to metal printing. If (and that’s a big ‘if’) they are successful, it could trigger one of the most profound forward-leaps in the history of manufacturing.
Last Tuesday, the European Space Agency unveiled its latest project, Amaze, which draws together 28 institutions from various industries and academies. The aim? To create the best quality metal components ever and to do so using 3D printing.
At its launch at the London Science Museum, Amaze (which somehow stands for Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste and Efficient Production of High Tech Metal Products) outlined its plan for more efficient and effective production processes.
The project comes with a hefty wedge of backing (upwards of 20 million Euro) and partners include Airbus, Norsk Titanium and Cranfield University. With factories operating in Italy, Germany, France, the UK and Norway, Amaze’s researchers are already working on 2 metre airplane wing sections and jet parts.
During the unveiling, Amaze presented Tungsten Alloy Components that had been tested at 3000 degree temperatures. By 3D printing specialised parts for large-scale machines like jets, crafts and fusion projects, Amaze will save time, reduce costs and reduce wastage. If successful, the end-point of all this would be the 3D printing of whole objects, such as satellites, that would take no extra manufacturing or human interaction.
The benefits of 3D printing metal
The reason 3D printing these items is so beneficial is to do with its additive nature. Traditional manufacturing processes are subtractive – you begin with a large chunk of building material and you take bits away until you have the shape you want. This means you end up discarding much of the material with which you began, presenting both cost and waste issues. With 3D printing, you only print what you want to print, meaning no material is wasted.
Plus there is that other great advantage of 3D printing: precise, complete customisation. Creating parts for this kind of machinery demands total accuracy. 3D printing allows designers to make and print objects of deep complexity, with a level of intricacy never before reached. Not only does this make the production of complex parts easier, it may also make them stronger and lighter too.
If this intricacy can be applied to items made from titanium, tantalum and vanadium, it opens up many new doors.
There are, however, problems. As anybody who’s been paying attention will tell you, 3D printing has some big drawbacks. The most pressing one is porosity. 3D printed items have a tendency to come out with air bubbles inside them that make for weaker structures. Also, there are the traditional rough surfaces that are a consequence of the layering technique.
Will Amaze be able to smooth over these issues? It is still too early to tell but they are not the only people pursuing this line of enquiry. NASA successfully tested a rocket engine injector back in July and America’s General Electric have made a fuel injector for a jet engine.
With all those egg-heads on the case, surely the ‘metal age of 3D printing’ could not be too far in the future.