3D-Printed Metal Parts Take to the Skies

(DGIwire) – The aviation industry is paying more attention than ever before to the potential of 3D metal printing. That is the message of a recent article in InsideMRO, which notes that the industry’s focus is moving beyond aircraft engines to a variety of other components and structures. Various aviation companies have already begun printing metal parts for auxiliary power units, ducts, oil tubs, brackets, mounts and diffusers.

The InsideMRO article further identifies 3D metal printing’s real potential for aviation companies: redesigning systems and components to the exact configuration and content required for their functions. This will require an unprecedented level of adherence to specification for the printed parts.

“Metal aircraft parts tend to be safety-critical, so 3D printing in the industry has been relatively slow to ‘take off’—especially given that the rate of manufacturing errors has been very high compared to conventional subtractive manufacturing methods,” says John R. Rice, CEO of Sigma Labs. “Utilizing new software that serves as a quality control while a part is being printed could help turn the tide.”

Sigma, which has 18 patents applied-for with 17 still pending, is helping to enhance the consistency and high quality of 3D printed metal parts by focusing on the “melt pool”—the material being formed into the final part. Ideally, the melt pool maintains a certain constant temperature no matter what the geometry or configuration of the part is. By calculating a metric known as Thermal Emissions Density™ (TED™) during manufacturing, the laser’s temperature can be modified at every stage. Doing so holds the potential of significantly improving the percentage of usable 3D metal parts created by reducing the rejection rate significantly.

These considerations have been integrated into Sigma’s INSPECT™ 2.0 software, a web-based application designed for seamlessly integrating data analytics with all metal 3D printing applications. For manufacturers that have already taken the first step in monitoring the printing process, Sigma Labs’ software provides access to powerful data analysis tools and baseline comparison technology. It enables plots of live heating rate, cooling rate and peak temperature; live In-Process Quality Assurance™ (IPQA®) plots; part-by-part analysis of each layer; and more.

This latest development complements Sigma Labs’ development of a proprietary, patent-protected, physics-based 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 during the printing process to assist manufacturing engineers in sorting acceptable from suspect components.

“The future of aviation’s use of 3D metal parts could depend to a substantial degree on innovations in quality control that are taking place right now within the arena of 3D metal printing,” Rice adds.

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