In a Q&A session, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Machine Tool Company senior vice-president and chief business officer, Haruhiko Niitani, explains how 3D metal printer technology is transforming the aerospace sector.
Although it’s hard to imagine aircraft or spacecraft being produced by a printing machine, the future may be closer than you think.
Advances in 3D printing mean components can be made to precise specifications and with less materials than traditional methods. The arrival of this technology is an attractive proposition for aerospace manufacturers, keen to reduce lead-times, increase production flexibility or form components from numerous different metals.
NASA was quick to see the benefits of additive manufacturing, with 3D printers steadily evolving to make plastic models of components since the 1980s.
Your innovative design has transformed the 3D metal printing industry. Can you tell us what’s different about it?
At the centre of the design is a state-of-the-art monitoring system, which supports the quality of finished components. Most machines can measure the size and shape of what they print but can only check the manufacturing integrity by breaking open the finished product, which is self-defeating.
Our unique system monitors the entire printing process in real-time. The system analyses the printing data and automatically adjusts the melting point to support structural consistency. Clients can access a comprehensive record of the printing process, giving them full product traceability down the line.
How does the new technology work?
The printer is fitted with a unique sealing nozzle, which allows us to manufacture components faster than power bed fusion (PBF) printers. Our Direct Energy Deposition, or DED, system feeds metal powder through the nozzle, which is then fused together and solidified using a laser beam. The sealing nozzle creates a low oxygen atmosphere at the melting point, preventing oxidisation of the melted metal.
Are there any restrictions on the size of 3D printed components?
Existing printers operate using an inert gas chamber, which prevents oxidation of the material being built up. This means the size of the part being printed is limited to the capacity of the chamber – the bigger it is, the larger the component it can produce.
Our new printer opens a world of possibilities for producers that need large components. The unique sealing nozzle uses a specially developed shield technology that eliminates the need for a chamber and enables us to manufacture any component from small parts to entire aircraft wings.
Q: How close can printed components get to traditional production times and can they become more competitive?
To appreciate the full benefits of 3D printing it’s important to look at the whole picture. As well as the production speed, it is necessary to compare the overall lead-time from preparation to delivery of finished products to the market.
Rather than produce parts in one manufacturing location, companies could locate 3D printing machines in different parts of the world. This would enable manufacturers to produce components to order, when and where they are needed. Design data could be sent to each site – regulatory compliance issues permitting – potentially reducing the need to hold inventory.
Adopting 3D printer technology could give component producers a competitive advantage over traditional manufacturing, giving them the ability to quickly respond to a rapidly changing market.
Can this technology be used anywhere?
The technology is so new that unified legislative standards like the ISO system, don’t yet exist for components manufactured using our new printer design. This creates a unique set of challenges. While we can produce any size and shape of component, the printed parts must conform to each country’s official specifications.
This process is underway, and we expect the first regulatory standards to be applied at the earliest feasible time, which will enable our clients to alter their product designs.
What are the main applications for the technology and are there any market barriers?
As the printer can use any type of metal, or combination of metals, the opportunities are endless. Initially the new printer will manufacture commercial airline parts and specialised components for space programmes.
Once the technology is scaled up and costs fall in line with traditional manufacturing techniques, we will look to 3D print components for automobiles and other commercial sectors.
It’s important to note that what we have created is interlinked with the Japanese concept of Monozukuri, which involves striving to achieve perfection in manufacturing. And this spirit and philosophy drives all the work we do.