Defense Industry Moves Toward Multi-Material 3D Printing.

Author:Machi, Vivienne

As additive manufacturing technology becomes more prevalent, engineers are now working on ways to 3D print different materials together to produce cost-efficient and sustainable parts for the aerospace industry.

Additive manufacturing involves the process of using modeling software and specialized equipment to build layers of material into a three-dimensional object.

Primes including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, sub-prime contractors and university and government laboratories are all exploring how to 3D print a component that contains elements of different materials, particularly metals. This could lead to parts that provide sturdiness in one area and thermal conductivity in others, cutting down on development time and making more durable products.

Applying additive manufacturing to create multifunctional materials would allow engineers to tailor design requirements and optimize the parts' material accordingly, said Zach Loftus, an additive manufacturing fellow at Lockheed. The company employs 3D printing to build flight parts and tools for many of its space systems.

In traditional manufacturing, a component made of a high-strength material may be connected by a bolt or some other mechanism to a part designed to conduct heat, he explained. "In the future, I think you're going to see some material systems that aren't 100 percent the same through the entire structure," he said.

Multi-material printing is still early in its development, said Mark Benedict, additive manufacturing lead for materials and manufacturing at the Air Force Research Laboratory. But the ability to create a multi-functional material--as opposed to making multiple parts with single functions and then assembling them together--"is a capability we would like to investigate," he said.

Sensing platforms would benefit from such an integrated material, he noted. "That would be a real enabler."

While potential applications are certainly being explored, "the capability to do that in a single printer is in its infancy," Benedict said, adding that very few additive processing systems are currently multi-material capable. The ones that are capable, typically cannot produce the quality that is required yet, he added.

There are currently about 10 metals that can be printed via additive manufacturing, "compared to the thousands of metals you can put on a plane," he noted. "So we have to be very selective about how we choose parts to print."

Engineers at the Pennsylvania State...

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