Aerospace giant Boeing and Swiss technology group Oerlikon have signed a partnership to advance 3D printing processes. The five-year partnership will first focus on powder bed additive manufacturing of structural titanium components for the aerospace industry with the goal of standardizing everything from initial powder management to finished product.

3D printing has seen many remarkable advances in recent years, especially in the field of metal-based additive printing. The fact that the technique is moving out of the gee-whiz phase and into the mainstream is further emphasized by the agreement between Boeing and Oerlikon. When industry starts talking about standardization, it's a clear indication that a technology is moving away from exotica and toward routine manufacturing, and is especially noteworthy when it involves a metal like titanium.

Printing with metal requires a machine that lays down a layer of metallic powder. A laser guided by a 3D design file then sinters a cross section of the desired product in the bed of powder before another layer is added and the process repeats until completed. The excess powder is then removed along with any temporary support structures before the component goes on for final finishing.

This is relatively straightforward with metals like aluminum, but titanium is notoriously difficult to work with whatever process is used, 3D printing being no exception. It involves very careful planning while the item to be printed only exists in digital form. During the printing process, the density of the titanium is hard to control as is the temperature at which it melts and the final surface finish. In addition, altering the design of prototypes during development has a knock-on effect in regard to the metal and 3D printing process.

The current agreement will initially focus on standardizing titanium-based 3D printing and making sure that printed components meet US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Defense (DoD) flight requirements, as well as quality and cost targets.

"This program will drive the faster adoption of additive manufacturing in the rapidly growing aerospace, space and defense markets," says Dr Roland Fischer, CEO Oerlikon Group. "Working together with Boeing will define the path in producing airworthy additive manufacturing components for serial manufacturing. We see collaboration as a key enabler to unlocking the value that additive manufacturing can bring to aircraft platforms and look forward to partnering with Boeing."

Source: Boeing