Getting the next stage of 3D printing off the ground

Author : Paige West, DPA editor & Mark Cola, Co-founder, President & Chief Technology Officer, Sigma Labs

02 January 2019

Stratasys empowers Boom to improve speed of development of XB-1, their supersonic demonstrator, taking flight next year (Photo: Business Wire)

While the 3D printing or additive manufacturing (AM) movement has taken the world by storm, with applications from in-space manufacturing and 3D-printed aerospace components to on-site military re-supply, quality assurance and rapid process qualification remain the biggest concerns for AM technology.

This editorial was originally featured in the January 2019 issue of EPDT magazine. Read the digital issue or sign up to receive your own copy.

Without an effective way to oversee product creation in real time, 3D printing can become inefficient and costly, losing its attractive on-demand capabilities and creating products that may be unsafe. Paige West, editor of EPDT sister title, DPA spoke to Mark Cola, Co-founder, President & Chief Technology Officer of real-time computer aided inspection (CAI) solutions provider, Sigma Labs about the impact 3D printing has had on the aerospace and defence industry, how its technology can help improve efficiency and safety, and what the future of 3D printing entails.

Aerospace and defence companies are looking for 3D printing to rapidly qualify processes and bring them into production as quickly as possible. In the past, many replicas of flight-critical components were manufactured to assure that the process, procedures and materials were correct and repeatable. Today, that would prove too long and too costly. Now, everything is digital, and companies can download a CAD file to a 3D printer, and within a matter of hours or days, have a finished article.

Weight reduction is also a priority, and is currently being achieved by using new materials that were previously unavailable. Every pound that can be saved on an aircraft translates to tremendous fuel savings. GE Aviation, for example, is using a material that has not previously been used in aerospace applications – a dental alloy! Normally used for human dental implants, it has properties that allow it to be of use in a new fuel nozzle GE Aviation is producing for its LEAP engine.

The industry started using 3D printing on non-critical components to demonstrate its ability to bring these products to market much quicker and at reduced cost. Things are now starting to move up the value chain, and companies are beginning to use this technology on more critical components.

Yet many are skeptical, so what’s the problem?

Traditionally, products are only inspected after completion, so if a small in-process error occurs that caused a defect, it can be difficult to pinpoint the problem. This leads to an extensive Edisonian trial and error approach, and a waste of expensive material – a major reason why many are skeptical of 3D printing.

Sigma Labs, a company founded by engineers and scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory, believes that by monitoring the AM process while a product is being created, manufacturers can identify when a small change occurs, giving them the tool to fix it immediately.

So, the company is working to improve quality assurance in 3D printing by embedding In-Process Quality Assurance (IPQA) real-time computer aided inspection (CAI), using sensor and software technology, into the additive manufacturing process using its PrintRite3D system. This is a digital, integrated, and interactive system that combines inspection, feedback, data collection and critical analytics. It works across multiple machines, is platform independent and its real-time alert system saves manufacturers time and resources, while providing them with a digital data thread or Quality Signature to prove a product’s integrity.

This approach is centred on data and what can be done with it. Cola breaks it down into three categories:

1. Sensing – what are you sensing?

PrintRite3D INSPECT Software Version 3.0

2. Inference – what are you inferring about the data you’re sensing?

3. Action – what are you doing with it?

Action steps can involve providing a process intervention scheme for the manufacturing engineer, alerting them to any issues and eventually, in the near future, using the data to allow the machine to self correct and keep the process and part quality under control.

Sigma Labs is currently working with manufacturers of 3D printers to embed its technology into their machines, allowing users to connect all their printers straight away, no matter the location. This really begins to bring distributed manufacturing into the digital age.

This technology was recently installed at Woodward’s Aircraft Turbine Systems Group and is now part of its additive manufacturing strategies to ensure that its aerospace and industrial customers receive quality products. The PrintRite3D system is also in use at Honeywell Aerospace in support of its DARPA-sponsored Open Manufacturing Programme, and will soon be installed at Solar Turbines, a division of Caterpillar in San Diego.

3D printing the future

We are beginning to hear of more interesting application stories involving 3D printing. One of the biggest ones from 2017 is arguably the partnering of Stratasys and Boom Supersonic, who have joined forces to improve the speed of development for supersonic aircraft with 3D printing. Additive manufacturing facilitates the rapid development and cost efficient production of specialised tools and flight parts for Boom to engineer the inaugural, high-speed aircraft in 2018.

Let’s skip ahead 5-10 years: what other applications will we see from this technology and how much will it have changed? Cola has a few ideas, starting with materials. The engineering alloys that are in use today were developed almost seven decades ago and while they are still very good, industry is calling for replacement alloys that can be used in similar applications, but are designed specifically for 3D printing.

New material will be brought to market that we haven’t even thought of yet, but more importantly, we are going to find new uses for existing engineering alloys that were not previously possible with conventional metalworking technology, like casting or forging. Cola believes this is the most exciting part; what will the new materials and applications of the future look like?

In terms of applications, the gates are wide open. It comes down to the limitations of the designers; today’s designers are generally trained and educated to think about designing components using traditional manufacturing techniques, making them rather constrained. What will change over time is, as we impart more design freedom on the engineers coming out of school, we will begin to see geometries and applications that would currently boggle our minds.

With regards to the printers themselves, Cola sees the next generation of 3D metal printers coming out of start-up companies from South-East Asia and China which will place pressure on the manufacturers of today to bring the cost point down. This will naturally happen over time and will lead to more widespread use of 3D printers.

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