3-D printing has come a long way in a relatively short time. NASA, who, up until recently, has been testing this technology to fabricate and test non-critical components such as brackets and ducts, has made a significant breakthrough by applying it to rocket engine components. The successful manufacture and testing of a rocket engine injector has other companies and industries watching closely.
There are a few variations to the additive manufacturing technology, but the underlying principle is uniform throughout. As the name implies, additive manufacturing produces three-dimensional objects by adding or depositing layers of material in different shapes, as dictated by a digital model. Variations in the way layers are deposited account for the different types of printing processes, including selective laser melting, direct metal sintering, and selective laser sintering, to name a few.
Why is this a big deal you ask? Let’s examine some benefits afforded by 3-D printing.
3-D printing, as compared to traditional manufacture and prototyping methods, is significantly cheaper. Material costs can be accurately calculated prior to production and each subsequent product design revision only requires a change to the digital model, not an overhaul of an expensive mold.
By the nature of the technology, waste material is minimized. Traditional methods of product prototyping or manufacture could involve cutting or shaving away material to form the final design. In contrast, additive manufacturing only adds the required material.
Time is money. An idea can be implemented quickly into a product and the new design tested rapidly with the adoption of 3-D printing technology. 3-D printing machines are becoming increasing economical to own, which would allow for the real time implementation of new ideas.
In most cases, it’s not economical, or even feasible, to have a CNC machine available to fabricate components for emergency situations. A portable 3-D printing machine could be a viable option, however. NASA even has plans to ship a 3-D printing unit to the International Space Station to make spare parts and tools.