Expert: Will We Fly in 3D-Printed Planes Someday?

3D printing has enjoyed a lot of buzz—reports have said it is possible to print everything from high heels to liver tissue to metal airplane parts.

But can 3D printing—also known as additive manufacturing (AM)—actually replace the tried-and-true forms of manufacturing? Mark Cola, CEO of Sigma Labs, believes it is possible but only if companies have real-time quality control throughout the process.

The 3D printing movement has taken the world by storm, with many deeming it the second industrial revolution. With applications such as in-space manufacturing, 3D-printed aerospace components and onsite military resupply, aerospace and defense manufacturing has the potential to change and improve dramatically.

However, according to Mr. Cola, quality assurance remains one of the biggest concerns for AM technology. In fact, current manufacturing processes for 3D metal printing are not capable of making every part right the first time and process consistency and repeatability require further development. Traditional quality systems for 3D metal product production rely heavily on after-manufacture inspection procedures that lack strong statistical reliability. Without an effective way to oversee product creation in real time, 3D printing can become inefficient, costly, lose its attractive on-demand capabilities and create products that may be unsafe.

Mr. Cola has extensive prior experience as a manager of a number of engineering companies. His scientific and academic qualifications, as well as his expertise in matters pertaining to the operation of manufacturing and technology companies, make him a thought leader on the opportunities and challenges associated with additive manufacturing.

Sigma Labs, a company founded by scientists from world-renowned Los Alamos National Laboratory, is working to solve this problem by embedding In-Process Quality Assurance™ (IPQA®) sensor and software technology into the manufacturing process using its PrintRite3D® system. With current contracts and agreements with major players like GE Aviation, Honeywell Aerospace and Aerojet Rocketdyne, Sigma Labs continues to make an impact in the aerospace and defense sectors by assuring quality metallurgy, productivity and as-built geometry in real time. Often in manufacturing, products are only inspected after completion, so if a small in-process error occurs that causes a defect, it can be difficult to pinpoint the problem. This leads to an extensive Edisonian trial-and-error approach and a waste of expensive materials—a major reason why many remain skeptical of 3D printing. Sigma believes that by monitoring the AM process while a product is being created, manufacturers can identify when a small change occurs, giving them the information needed to fix it immediately. This real-time alert system saves manufacturers time and resources, while providing them with the data to prove a product’s integrity.

More About Mark Cola

Mr. Cola has more 32 years of experience in the aerospace and nuclear industries, including with Rockwell International, Westinghouse in the Naval Nuclear Reactors Program, and within the NNSA Weapons Complex at Los Alamos National Laboratory at which he held various technical and managerial positions including team leader and group leader of the welding and joining section as well as an advanced manufacturing technology group, respectively. He has also worked as a Research Engineer at Edison Welding Institute and for Stoody, a leading manufacturer of wear-resistant materials.

Mr. Cola has worked with a wide range of clients ranging from aerospace to defense systems. His expertise is in manufacturing process development, friction welding, light alloys such as titanium and aluminum, mechanical, physical and welding metallurgy, and nickel-based super-alloys for harsh environments. Mr. Cola served as the Technical Co-Chairman for the inaugural National Nuclear Security Administration Future Technologies Conference, and he is a principal reviewer for the American Welding Society’s Welding Journal. Mr. Cola earned a B.S. in metallurgical engineering and an M.S. in welding engineering from The Ohio State University.


3D printing, 3D metal printing, additive manufacturing, Mark Cola, Sigma Labs, quality control, quality assurance, aerospace, defense, In-Process Quality Assurance, IPQA, PrintRite3D, metallurgy, productivity, as-built geometry



Laura Radocaj

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