|The AMAZE 3D logo on display at the London Science Museum. Photo c/o ESA.|
by Brian Orlotti
On October 15th, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission unveiled the AMAZE (Additive Manufacturing Aiming towards Zero waste & Efficient production of high-tech metal products) project, a consortium of 28 institutions working to perfect 3D metal printing technology for use in space, aerospace and industrial applications.
The ESA made the announcement at the opening of a new exhibit at the London Science Museum showcasing various 3D printed metal parts produced as part of the AMAZE project. These pieces included an aerofoil made from layers of titanium, intricate hinges for the Airbus A320 aircraft and a stunning AMAZE logo printed in tungsten in a metallic mesh pattern. Parts made of tungsten alloys in particular were highlighted, as this metal can withstand extremely high temperatures (up to 3,000 degrees Celsius), making such parts ideal for use in spacecraft or nuclear fusion reactors.
3D printing (aka additive manufacturing), a technology that some say is sparking a "second industrial revolution" has been hampered by being limited to making objects out of plastic. Although plastics are used in a wide variety of consumer and industrial products, they are prone to wear and tear and are ill-suited for extreme conditions.
Change is in the air however, and in February 2014 key patents for laser-sintering technology will expire. Because of its high resolution in all three dimensions, laser sintering could produce high-quality metallic (and plastic) objects that could be sold as finished products.
For added eco-friendliness, printing metal aircraft parts as single pieces (without welding or bolting) can make them stronger and lighter. A weight reduction of even 1kg for a long-range aircraft would save hundreds of thousands of dollars in fuel and many tons of CO2 emissions.
|3D printed metal parts. Photo c/o London Science Museum.|
ESA reps have even said that one of their goals is to print a satellite, in space, as a single piece. Large satellites built in this way could as much as 50% cheaper. To this end, the ESA aims to deliver the first 3D metal printer to the International Space Station (ISS) to allow astronauts to print satellites and other custom objects on demand.
For all its tantalizing potential, 3D metal printing has issues and inefficiencies that must still be overcome. These issues include porosity (small air bubbles inside objects), finishing of rough surfaces, and scaling up the technology to make large objects. Solutions will require close collaboration between industry and academia.
The first industrial revolution changed the face of the world and ultimately allowed human beings to take our first steps into space. How fitting it would be for the second industrial revolution to enable us to thrive in it.
|"There never was a good knife made of bad steel." - Benjamin Franklin (1706 - 1790).|