Since its onset in 1985, 3-D printing has allowed for game-changing benefits in manufacturing methods and practices and industry.

Image of EOS M 400 direct metal laser sintering 3-D printer.In 2013, battle lines were drawn. Two stark competitors were looking to speed repairs and cut costs on parts for gas turbines. First to the drawing board was GE, who started using 3-D printing technology at its Global Research Center in Niskayuna, N.Y., to produce more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for its anticipated LEAP engine technology. Feeling the competition, Siemens Industrial Turbomachinery AB, Finspang, Sweeden, quickly sought to use the technique to produce spare parts for its line of gas turbines.

How did this battle end? Who came out on top? The answer: EOS GmbH, Munich, a company founded by Dr. Hans J. Langer and Dr. Hans Steinbichler that manufactures 3-D printers based on laser sintering techniques. However, the outcome was bright for both companies as well.

In November 2014, GE released a video of an engineer at the company using an EOS M 270 3-D printer to redesign a radio-controlled engine using the direct metal laser sintering technique. After testing their creation in an aviation test chamber, the parts were able to achieve speeds of up to 33,000 RPMs. And in June 2014, GE Aviation opened a new assembly plant in Indiana to build the world’s first passenger jet engine (LEAP) with 3-D printed fuel nozzles and next-generation materials. Estimated to enter service on the Airbus A320neo in 2016, the engine has already become GE Aviation’s bestselling engine, with more than 6,000 confirmed orders from 20 countries, valued at more than $78 billion.

For Siemens, the challenge lied in reducing maintenance costs of their gas turbines, which range in performance from 15 to 60 MW. During the operation of gas turbines, the engine’s hot gas path is exposed to high temperatures, at times in excess of 1,000 C. This, in turn, leads to a high level of wear on the hot gas path components, especially the burner tip. The conventional repair procedure required prefabrication of sections of the burner tip, which was time consuming and a great expense. To lower the time spent and money invested, Siemens invested in an EOSINT M 280 metal laser sintering system, which the company uses for many applications and aids in the longevity of their engines.

Whether it be to cut costs, enhance speed and time to market or just tinkering, 3-D printing is giving companies a competitive edge and hobbyists something to blog. From aerospace to medical technology, this form of additive manufacturing is now a standard practice for most product design models.

1-2-3 blast off
3-D printing isn’t just a commodity on Earth, it’s now also a commodity in space. In November 2014, the first 3-D printer in space created its first object, albeit self-fulfilling, a replacement faceplate for the printer’s casing that holds its internal wiring in place. In September 2014, SpaceX’s Dragon capsule shot to the International Space Station (ISS) with supplies and a 3-D printer created by Made In Space, a Moffett Field, Calif.-based company that develops additive manufacturing technologies for use in the space environment. This faceplate is one of about 20 objects that was printed on the ISS over a few weeks of the printer’s space landing.

Made In Space’s Zero-G printer is the first 3-D printer designed to operate in zero gravity. The initial version of this printer is serving as a test bed for understanding the long-term effects of microgravity on 3-D printing, and how it can enable the future of space exploration. The printer was built under a joint partnership between NASA MSC and Made In Space.

Not only is there now a 3-D printer in space, but one of the main industries seeking the technique is aerospace. From the GE and Siemens examples, 3-D printing has been used in the design of jet engines since 2013. But its reach is further than engines, spanning now into satellites and other such communications devices.

One of the most important considerations for aerospace projects is producing strong, durable parts while minimizing overall weight. “For complex parts produced in low volumes, additive manufacturing can provide a solution with strong, lightweight parts built faster and more cost effectively than with traditional methods like injection molding or machining,” says Bill Camuel, project engineering manager, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, Eden Prairie, Minn.

In early 2014, Lockheed Martin announced its use of 3-D printing technology in the overhaul of its A2100 satellite, a commercial communications satellite that deployed more than 800 spacecraft and 300 payloads over the past 50 years. The company sought 3-D printing to streamline its manufacturing efforts, stating the technique provided the two advantages of weight and schedule reduction. Both of the advantages would also drive costs lower.

Lockheed Martin used Stratasys’ fused deposition modeling (FDM) 3-D printing technology in the task, and used the 3-D printed titanium parts to test form, fit and function before moving the satellite into full-scale production. The fuel tanks for the satellite were also prototyped using 3-D methods. By 3-D printing the satellite parts, the mass reduction translates into reduced launch costs for customers and can also lead to increased capability by adding expanded payload capacity. The faster the company can produce parts, the sooner they can deliver and launch the satellites into orbit.

Later in 2014, RedEye, a Stratasys company, partnered with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to 3-D print 30 phased array supports for the FORMOSAT-7 Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (COSMIC-2) satellite mission. Scheduled for launch in 2016, and 2018, the COSMIC-2 mission marks the first time 3-D printed parts will function externally in outer space. The antenna arrays will capture atmospheric and ionosphere data to help improve weather prediction models and advance meteorological research on Earth.

Image of the 3-D printed phased array supports for the FORMOSAT-7 COSMIC-2 satellite mission. Image: RedEyeJPL needed an alternative to machining the array parts out of Astroquartz, the materials traditionally used for the arrays, in order to keep the project on time and budget. So, JPL turned to RedEye to produce 3-D printed parts that could handle the complex array designs and also be strong enough to withstand the demands of outer space. The parts were custom-designed using FDM and durable ULTEM 9085 material, a thermoplastic with similar strength to metals like aluminum, but weighing less. The material served its purpose in the intricate design of the arrays, pushing the satellite closer to its launch goal.

FDM and laser sintering 3-D printing techniques offer obvious advantages for low-volume production in the aerospace industry as they have no tooling costs. Also, a complex design is almost as easy to manufacture as a simple one. Overall the technology offers many opportunities for lightweighting components, and eliminates the level of waste produced by subtractive technologies.

The doctor’s in
In 2012, the story of four-year-old Emma struck the world. Emma couldn’t use her arms to eat or play as she was born with athrogryposis multiplex congentia (AMC). However, the moment her mom, Megan Lavelle, learned about the Wilmington Robotic EXoskeleton (WREX), an assistive device made of hinged metal bars and resistance bands, she knew it would change her daughter’s life. The device was developed to enable children with underdeveloped arms to play and feed themselves, allowing them to have the arm function of a normal child.

However, for Emma to wear the WREX device, the primary developers Tariq Rahman and Whitney Sample needed to scale it down both in size and weight, as the metal was too heavy for the little girl. To aid in this task, a Stratasys 3-D printer was used to prototype the WREX in ABS plastic. The difference in weight allowed the developers to attach the Emma-sized WREX to a little plastic vest. The 3-D printed WREX turned out to be durable enough for everyday use.

As Emma continues to grow, the device can be resized to help her arms function. The WREX, overall, unlocked a world of abilities and hope for her family.

While Emma is just one example, in the medical industry, 3-D printing promotes patient-specific products, such as implantable components and cutting/drilling guides. Titanium and cobalt chrome alloys are in use now, and the pace of adoption is accelerating.

According to Andy Snow, SVP, EOS North America, “The first laser-sintered acetabular hip cup was a lonely pioneer, but will soon be joined by customized implants for shoulders, fingers and bone plates.” These components can be manufactured at a light weight with surfaces and porosity that promote bone growth/ostia integration.

It isn’t just metals in medicine though, Snow says. EOS has already seen patient-specific plastic drill guides for surgery. PEEK materials are used for non-load bearing applications–maxillofacial and cranial skull plates–and the use will grow in the years ahead.

The freedom to redesign complex production parts is also important, particularly for medical devices that might be altered after clinical trials reveal required design changes.

According to Camuel, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing recently worked with a medical device manufacturer on the production of a new catheter technology, which includes an innovative thermoplastic socket and console design. Since the likelihood of design modifications was high and the production volume was low, the company 3-D printed the parts for a foreign clinical trial.

“After the trial, the company made design tweaks and completed functional tests to move into a limited market release,” says Camuel. “They continued working with us to produce some end-use plastic components with complex geometries that were impossible to injection mold, in addition to avoiding capital investments in tooling.”

A change in materials
Applications drive material development activity in the 3-D printing world. When an OEM comes to a 3-D printer manufacturer, such as EOS or Stratasys, with a specific application requiring a material that isn’t commercially available yet, the manufacturer must explore developing the material either directly for them or in a collaborative arrangement.

EOS is seeing a current interest in tungsten. The aerospace industry is also looking closely at EOS NickelAlloy HX, analogous to Hastelloy X in traditional processes. The company is also developing tooling metals beyond their present maraging steel, such as a 420 stainless steel ideal for molds in manufacturing plastic products.

Image of Stratasys 3-D printers in a manufacturing facility.In addition to technological advances, the quality and quantity of materials has greatly improved. Processes like Stratasys’ PolyJet use materials that simulate multiple plastic mechanical properties in a single build to provide excellent detail, according to Camuel. FDM and selective laser sintering (SLS) build with strong thermoplastics that can endure extreme temperature and chemical exposure, with some certified for highly regulated industries like aerospace and health care.

Another major advance, according to Camuel, is the production of metal parts. Direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) builds parts layer-by-layer out of a powder bed of metal alloys. DMLS is ideal for small, complex metal parts and opens the door to new industries and applications.

The future is bright
Entrepreneurs who want inexpensive printers have stimulated the development of low-end technologies that encourage others to enter the field of 3-D printing/additive manufacturing. As new users discover the design potential of additive manufacturing, many of them want to transition their designs to create production-quality parts, according to EOS’ Snow, and that’s when they turn to companies with expertise in industrial 3-D printing. The broader market for low-cost equipment becomes a feeder system for high-end systems as users become more sophisticated and demand high-quality production.

Also, according to Snow, people are starting to educate themselves about 3-D printing, and some customers now offer training courses in DMLS. It’s EOS’ hope that, in the long term, more technical colleges and universities that teach best practices for subtractive manufacturing, such as cutting or grinding, will build curriculums that incorporate detailed courses on design and production with additive manufacturing. The future possibilities are seemingly endless for 3-D printing.

“With further evolution of additive technologies and more materials for functional use, I believe we will see 3-D printing lead to a transformation in the manufacturing industry,” says Camuel.

Adoption of additive processes also plays an important role in the future. As more organizations implement additive manufacturing into all stages of their product development process, engineers and companies will be able to think differently, spurring innovation and allowing us to re-imagine how things are made.