New 3D Printer Arrives at Aerospace

New 3D printer is unpacked on the A6 D-Pod loading dock. (Photo: Eric Hamburg)

The Materials Science Department in the Space Materials Laboratory began installing a new metal additive manufacturing 3D printer on Tuesday, May 10, in the El Segundo A6 laboratory facility.

The $1 million Concept Laser M2 Cusing Machine can manufacture parts using numerous powders such as titanium, aluminum, nickel-based alloys, and steels.  A single part could be made of multiple alloys, letting designers tailor its material characteristics in a way that’s not possible with traditional casting. One segment of the part could be tailored for strength, while another is optimized for heat resistance. Additive manufacturing machines work directly from a computer model, so people can devise completely new shapes without regard for existing manufacturing ­limitations.

Traditional metal manufacturing techniques utilize subtractive manufacturing where a part is manufactured and material is removed or machined away to make the final part. The traditional processing methods are labor-intensive and lead to a high percentage of the material being scrapped.

By contrast, in additive manufacturing parts are built by adding micron-thick layer-upon-layer of material with the aid of 3D modeling software. Using this process, complex parts can be more easily produced with less material, labor, and overall production costs.

However, the qualification, the materials science, and the directional properties of these materials are still under investigation and must be understood prior to full use.  Aerospace is working to better understand this exciting new manufacturing process on the new metal laser melting system, which will be increasingly used by contractors to manufacture the next generation of space hardware.