October 15, 2013, 4:26 PM — The European Space Agency (ESA) today kicked off a project to begin producing a number of complex, 3D printed metal parts for use in space and Earth.
A rocket fuel injector that delivers liquid oxygen and hydrogen into a combustion chamber (Image: ESA).
The ESA's AMAZE project will vastly reduce the cost of creating metal parts for spacecraft, jet engines and fusion projects by allowing parts to be created as-needed. The ESA said the parts, which can be made from tungsten alloy, can withstand temperatures at 3000 degrees Celsius. Tungsten parts can withstand not only the heat generated by rocket engines, but nuclear fusion reactors, the agency said.
3D printing, also known as "additive manufacturing," is the process of pouring or spraying out successive layers of polymers or powdered metals to form an object from the bottom up.
First, an image of an object is manipulated to specifications using computer-aided design (CAD) software. Then another program, known as a GCode Generator, converts the digital 3D file into printing instructions. There are several open-source GCode Generators on the market today, the most popular of which is called Slic3r, which cuts the 3D model into horizontal layers and calculates the amount of material to be extruded from the printer.
As the metal, in the form of powder or polymers in the form of filament, is extruded from the printer head, it's heated and melted so that it binds to each successive layer.
For plastic objects, a filament that looks like weed wacker line is heated at the printer head as it's being extruded.
3D printed hinges for an Airbus A310 commercial jet airliner (Image: ESA)
For metal objects, a laser is used to etch the shape of cross-section of an object into metal powder onto a tray.
"This novel technology offers many advantages. 3D printing...can create complex shapes that are impossible to manufacture with traditional casting and machining techniques," the ESA said in a statement. "Little to no material is wasted and cutting the number of steps in a manufacturing chain offers enormous cost benefits."
The AMAZE project acronym stands for "Additive Manufacturing Aiming Towards Zero Waste & Efficient Production of High-Tech Metal Products," The project began in January and factory sites are being set up in France, Germany, Italy, Norway and the UK to develop the 3D printing industrial supply chain.
Various metal parts that the ESA displayed at the conference today (Image: ESA)
NASA has also produced rocket engine parts, including a fuel injector, using 3D printing.
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more about emerging technologies in Computerworld's Emerging Technologies Topic Center.