3D printing of large, complex objects like automobiles and rockets was once thought to border on the realm of science fiction. Today, serious companies are producing 3D-printed rocket engine parts and finished engines with lower weight and cost compared to traditionally manufactured engines. 3D printing capabilities now span beyond fabricating mechanical parts for rocket engines and include the production of fully-functional electronics.
Most people are familiar with using additive manufacturing systems to produce mechanical components, but they can also be used to produce complex PCBs for aerospace applications. Electronics are critical for controlling 3D-printed rocket engines, and additive manufacturing systems can now be used to print highly complex PCBs for aerospace systems. Additive processes for mechanical components and electronics production are ideal in the high-mix, low-volume aerospace manufacturing environment.
You can produce 3D-printed rocket engine parts and electronics from digital models with the right additive manufacturing system.
High-Mix, Low-Volume Production of Complex Parts
Advanced factories in many manufacturing industries, such as the automobile industry, might churn out thousands of units per day, with each unit containing hundreds or thousands of mechanical and electronic components. Meanwhile, what is considered “high volume” in the aerospace industry is considered “low volume” in any other industry. High-volume production for aerospace OEMs might not exceed 100 units per year. Furthermore, the mix of components required in a single rocket is very high compared to other manufacturing industries.
As aerospace manufacturers operate in an inherently high-mix, low-volume environment, it does not make sense to invest large amounts of capital into tooling optimized for mass production. This is where additive manufacturing systems excel as they are adaptable to a huge range of products. Meanwhile, traditional processes are best for high-volume, no-mix manufacturing. Here’s how additive systems are transforming aerospace manufacturing:
Manufacture Different Parts Without Retooling
Because only dozens of a particular mechanical or electronic component might be needed annually by any company, aerospace OEMs need manufacturing systems that are adaptable to a broad range of components without requiring retooling.
Reduced Assembly Steps Through Part Simplification
Part simplification is an act of consolidation. Typically, multiple parts must be produced separately through molding or casting processes, followed by assembly through welding or with fasteners. As an example, aerospace startup Relativity Space is currently producing fully-functional test engines that contain only three parts. Additive manufacturing systems can be used to produce simplified parts for 3D-printed rocket engines as a single unit, eliminating the use of fasteners and other assembly steps. This reduces fabrication time and yields a mechanical part with higher mechanical strength.
The ability to produce multiple parts without retooling provides customers with a high level of customization. Engine component manufacturers can use a variety of additive manufacturing systems and processes to produce custom parts directly from customers’ 3D CAD data with little-to-no retooling. They can also produce rare replacement parts or any other component directly from digital inventory, which helps alleviate supply chain pressure and reduces lead times.
Customized mechanical components and electronics for aerospace systems can be produced on-demand with additive manufacturing processes.
Predictable Cost Structure and Fabrication Time
The costs involved in additive manufacturing are primarily driven by the weight of the materials being deposited, rather than tooling costs and post-processing steps, both of which are related to product complexity. This makes the costs and fabrication time involved in producing complex mechanical parts for 3D-printed rocket engines highly predictable. Thanks to part simplification, the costs tend to be highly competitive with traditional processes, while the total fabrication time is much lower.
Technology moves quickly, and traditional mass production methods go obsolete as fast as the finished products they produce. Whenever a manufacturing process needs to be updated, the capital required is only justified when the process will be used for high volume production. Additive manufacturing systems are practically immune to this problem of obsolescence. When the parts they produce go obsolete and need to be redesigned, the same system can most likely be used to produce the updated part.
Transforming 3D-Printed Rocket Engine Parts with 3D-Printed Electronics
Additive manufacturing has proven itself invaluable for producing mechanical 3D-printed rocket engine parts with higher strength, lower cost, and less material waste. As more companies, like Relativity Space, Launcher, and others, continue perfecting this technology, the natural step is to 3D print additively manufactured electronics (AMEs) and other electronics for use in rocket engines. Aerosol jetting and inkjet printing processes are ideal for producing complex AMEs with lower cost, fewer signal integrity problems, and more advanced functionality.
These additive processes and systems can be used to fabricate AMEs with nearly any interconnect architecture and geometry in a layer-by-layer deposition process. The fabrication costs and time are highly predictable as they only depend on the weight of the raw materials being deposited, rather than the complexity of the board architecture. These systems can easily scale to high mix, low volume manufacturing of complex electronics.
Aerospace companies can now print fully-functional AMEs for 3D-printed rocket engines when they use the DragonFly LDM inkjet additive manufacturing system from Nano Dimension. This unique inkjet printing system allows high-mix, low-volume production of complex AMEs in-house. If you’re interested in learning more about using additive manufacturing for complex AME production, read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.