Tuesday, October 22, 2013

3D Metal Manufacturing Waiting for Patents to Expire

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.

The €20Mln Euro AMAZE project brings together 28 partners from across European industry and academia including Airbus, Cranfield University, the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, EADS and Norsk Titanium. The ESA has stated that factories are being set up in France, Germany, Italy, Norway and the UK in order to develop something new: a 3D printing industrial supply chain.

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.

Several techniques have emerged for 3D printing in metal; most involving the use of lasers or electron beams to melt and fuse metallic powders (known as "laser sintering," among other names). Unfortunately, 3D metal printing has not seen widespread adoption for the same reasons that once held 3D plastic printing back: high costs and patent restrictions.

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.

AMAZE researchers have already printed metal jet engine parts and aircraft wing sections up to 2m in size. Typically, these high-strength components are made from rare & expensive metals like titanium, tantalum and vanadium. Using traditional casting/forging techniques to make these objects would waste valuable raw material. In contrast, additive manufacturing (building parts up layer-by-layer) could potentially achieve near-zero waste. A factory that could make a part with one kilo of metal rather than twenty would be very green, indeed.

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).


  1. One very interesting thing for 3-d printing with metals in Space will be which methods are used to get the metal to where you want it, and keep it there till the electron beam or laser beam arrives for fusing it to the rest of the object. At the bottom of our gravity well, we can use gravity to do this, spreading thin layers of dust that gravity holds in place, while a beam fuzes that layer in the desired pattern to the preceding portions of the printed object.

    In a free fall environment, that will not work. However, there *are* other forces besides gravity to pick, put and pin down metallic bits. The method used by MadeInSpace so far might be used, which is using stock in the form of thin threads that are positioned along the lines of the workpiece and melted to the rest of the object. This will work in some situations, but in others it may be cumbersome. One force for moving dust particles similar to the metallic dust used on Earth could be static electricity. In the vacuum of Space, in free fall, this could be the predominant force acting on small particles. moving charge to move mass may be worthwhile, if we can get the speed of deposition up to the rates of the thread systems.

    In vacuum another system less used today could be interesting, that being Laser Chemical Vapor Deposition (LCVD). In conjunction with technologies like the Mond Process, this tech could use metal carbonyls from native metal bits found in carbonaceous chondrite asteroids as the intermediate feedstock, and direct a laser beam in the desired pattern at a frequency not absorbed by the carbonyl, but nicely absorbed by the metal itself. Most carbonlys disassociate when heated strongly, depositing their metal on the surface they are in contact with. A converging group of laser beams could provide heat at the point of desired deposition at any one time, while shining through the carbonyl gasses themselves, perhaps even at high enough pressures that the deposition rates can rival those of thread or dust systems. The poisonous nature of many carbonyls may limit experimentation here, till more manufacturing space outside human space habitats can be brought into being.

    1. Hello, I'm quite interested in Laser Chemical Vapor Deposition (LCVD) 3D printer of metal carbonyls. I was just googling on this topic, and only meaningful page what I found was your post. Can you please give me some references (web page, paper DOI or something) on this topic?
      Thank you

  2. Fascinating and thoughtful points, Tom! Its clear much work needs to be done to get this to work in space, but the future is going to be VERY interesting.

    Thanks for the feedback!



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