Additive manufacturing to transform aerospace engineering

HOWARD'S TOWER BLOG. I am a sucker for 3D printing. Seriously, I geek out over it. In my youth (ah, youth), I wrote high-tech articles focused on engineering related to computer graphics (CG), visual effects (VFX), and digital content creation (DCC). It was then that I was first introduced to 3D printing, which has come to be known as “additive manufacturing” in the aerospace community.

Don’t believe the hype: All-electric, autonomous aircraft a long shot, and supersonic misses the mark, readers say
Don’t believe the hype: All-electric, autonomous aircraft a long shot, and supersonic misses the mark, readers say

HOWARD'S TOWER BLOG. I am a sucker for 3D printing. Seriously, I geek out over it. In my youth (ah, youth), I wrote high-tech articles focused on engineering related to computer graphics (CG), visual effects (VFX), and digital content creation (DCC). It was then that I was first introduced to 3D printing, which has come to be known as “additive manufacturing” in the aerospace community.

A decade ago, I didn’t think there would be a great deal of overlap between CG/VFX/DCC technologies – those used in the production of blockbuster movies and the hottest video games, for example – and aerospace innovations, but I was wrong.

Crossover and commonality between seemingly disparate high-tech communities are alive and well. In fact, many of the technologies and applications that pique my interest as an aerospace geek have roots in the computer graphics realm. Among them are general-purpose graphics processing units (GPGPUs), from Nvidia and other technology firms; high-resolution projection systems, such as those from Christie Digital Systems (which recently sold its popular Matrix line to Rockwell Collins); simulation programs, including flight training software and hardware; virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality; modeling and prototyping systems; and 3D printing, among others.

Virtual Reality

It's me, geeking out in a virtual-reality headset courtesy of Honeywell Aerospace; Honeywell experts treated me to a virtual tour of an enviable private jet during Paris Air Show 2015.

Aerospace engineers, in particular, have really picked up the 3D printing ball and run with it. At first, 3D printing was a luxury in aerospace and used only where the return on investment (ROI) either was a top priority (product development) or hardly an issue at all (education, research and development). For some time, the only time I heard about 3D printing was when an aerospace engineer had designed a new widget and 3D-printed a prototype for further examination and testing.

As time marched on, makers of 3D printers advanced the technology, enhanced manufacturing, provided more material options, and benefitted from economies of scale. In turn, the size of 3D printers went down, and so did their price tag. Advances in electronic design automation (EDA) and digital product testing put a dent in the number of 3D-printed prototypes being generated; yet, even so, I’m seeing more and more aerospace organizations using 3D printing for prototyping and myriad other applications.

Curtiss-Wright engineers debuted a 3D-printed chassis for high-performance electronics that proved to be a real head-turner – not to mention the perfect way to demonstrate a technology, standard, and/or company on the bleeding edge. (Read about it here: http://www.intelligent-aerospace.com/articles/2016/02/curtiss-wright-3d-printed-chassis-supports-vita-48-8-standard-helicopter-and-uas-applications.html). The company also reportedly demonstrated a 3D-printed aerospace part for European Space Agency (ESA) officials (http://www.maydown.com/index.php/blog/schivo3d-printed-part-used-european-space-agency-demonstrated-irish-taoiseach-and-heads-esa-and-isa-curtis-wright/).

Three-dimensional printing continues to transform aerospace engineering. Indeed, 3D-printed parts and components have found their way into aircraft and rocket engines and even onto the International Space Station (ISS). ESA engineers are even talking about harnessing 3D printing (also called additive manufacturing and additive layer manufacturing) to produce a lunar base – yes, a 3D-printed habitat on the Moon! I’m excited to see where aerospace engineers take 3D printing; clearly, even the sky is no limit!


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