They have been used to make everything from pizzas to prosthetic hands to guns. But can 3-D printers churn out entire satellites?
That’s the goal for some aerospace contractors, who think this technology is poised to revolutionize the way expensive, high-maintenance products are manufactured.
Lockheed Martin, Boeing and other aerospace companies have already embraced the concept of using 3-D printers to manufacture small parts. For example, Lockheed’s Juno spacecraft, which is on its way to explore Jupiter, relies on a set of 3-D printed brackets. Boeing has used several 3-D printed parts in its airplanes, including the Dreamliner. Northrop Grumman has a titanium component in its X-47B unmanned aircraft built for the Navy and has plans to use 3-D printed parts in the F-35 fighter jet.
Companies are always looking for ways to cut costs, but the emphasis on developing new technology has increased as the government’s defense budget shrinks and contractors compete for business, executives say.
“The real end goal isn’t just to do 3-D printing,” said Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Lockheed’s space systems division, which is investing heavily in the technology. “It’s about delivering a capability at a much lower cost across the board.”
The average Defense Department satellite takes eight years to produce, Ambrose said. Lockheed’s goal is to eventually cut that down to under five years.
Government agencies are more open to experimentation right now, contractors say. President Obama started the National Additive and Manufacturing Innovation Institute, known as “America Makes,” in 2012 to promote research and standards in the field of 3-D printing.
At the same time, competitors across the world are trying to revive manufacturing in their homelands by embracing new technologies.
“Companies recognize that if this technology continues to develop, it could be a real change in manufacturing competitiveness,” said Mark Thut, who leads innovation efforts in the aerospace sector for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. “They certainly don’t want to be surprised by that.”
3-D printing — which is formally known as additive manufacturing — uses a computer-generated digital blueprint to build an object layer by layer. One of its advantages is the ability to produce complex geometric designs or create customized parts that may be used just once, companies say.
The process is time-consuming and depending on the materials used, can still be expensive. But the technology is evolving quickly as engineers try to cut down on production time and develop more cost-effective materials.
The specialized printing was mainly used to make rapid prototypes and test them in the development phase. But the technology has progressed from creating models to making actual parts.
Right now, engineers still don’t use 3-D printing to make critical, load-bearing structures. But that will only be a matter of time.
“It’s kind of getting into toddler mode,” said Michael Hayes, a technical lead engineer with Boeing’s research and technology division. “Soon it’ll be walking, and the way things are moving, it’ll be running.”