3D Metal Printing Aims for the Skies

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By Staff Reports

(DGIwire) – Imagine flying through the skies in a plane whose metal parts were made in a printer. Sound like a sci-fi dream? In fact, the era of 3D printing in the aerospace industry is already here. A slew of leading companies are instituting 3D metal printing into their production processes, reports professional services firm PwC; for example, GE Aviation recently announced it will create more than 100,000 3D-printed parts by the end of this decade. Aerospace is poised to see major cost savings and improved efficiency from 3D printing, according to National Defense magazine, with printed components like nozzles, valves and engine mounts on the way.

Yet quality inspectors still face a major challenge: determining that the new components are of uniformly high quality. Traditionally, this has required an “Edisonian” trial-and-error approach to tweaking the parameters of the process used to manufacture each 3D part. In 3D metal printing, a component is built up one microscopic layer at a time out of a metallic powder that is manipulated by a laser; a computer-aided design (CAD) blueprint tells the laser exactly how to shape the material—but finalizing that optimal blueprint can be an arduous process.

“If quality assurance engineers had a way to determine the ideal properties for each new component before it was even printed—and could then ensure that each part, as it is being made, adhered to that high standard—they could significantly reduce the time and cost required for manufacturing,” says Mark J. Cola, President and CEO of Sigma Labs, Inc.“Technology now exists that can integrate quality inspection directly into the 3D metal printing process.

Sigma Labs has developed a proprietary, patent-protected, quality assurance software suite called PrintRite3D® that transforms the 3D printing process. In contrast to traditional quality assurance that is performed after-the-fact, PrintRite3D® works in real-time to assist quality inspectors in sorting acceptable from suspect components.

The PrintRite3D® suite benefits aerospace companies that are 3D-printing metal parts in three aspects. The first involves metallurgy: in addition to optimizing the structure/property/parameter qualities of metal parts, Sigma Labs’ software allows engineers to assess each part’s microstructure—scanning and collecting data on potential weaknesses (like “pores” in the metal). The second benefit involves geometry: the software helps capture images of every layer of metal as it is being incorporated into the part; this data, available digitally, gives inspectors the ability to detect any distortion or misalignment as parts are made and intervene in real-time. Finally, the software enhances a company’s productivity by collecting Big Data regarding the performance of multiple 3D printers at multiple locations into a single database.

With a core facility in Santa Fe, NM, Sigma Labs offers clients a comprehensive one-stop shop for 3D metal printing and process engineering; alternately, Sigma Labs can offer its suite to clients at their own facilities. The company has signed agreements with GE Aviation and Honeywell Aerospace for test and evaluation of its PrintRite3D® technology.

“We believe 3D metal printing in the aerospace industry—in conjunction with the in-process quality assurance (IPQA®) methodology made possible by our PrintRite3D® technology—could revolutionize the way high-quality parts for critical applications are created,” Cola adds.

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