If you're following
, or the 3D printing space in general, you're likely aware of the
main hurdles that are holding back 3D printing from making faster
inroads into the manufacturing environment. These include speed,
materials capabilities, and built-in quality assurance measures.
NASA just overcame one huge part of the "materials capabilities"
challenge by 3D printing the
real-life composite part -- a mirror mount made of several
Let's look at NASA's accomplishment and its potential
3D printing mission accomplished
Researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, and
Penn State have developed a 3D printing process that transitions
from one metal or alloy to another as a single object is being
printed. This enabled them to 3D print a spacecraft mirror mount
that is composed of several different alloys.
NASA's accomplishment marks the first time 3D printing
has been used to produce a single object made of different metals
or alloys, according to John Paul Borgonia, a JPL mechanical
engineer. Gradient alloys have been created in the past, though
they've been limited to research and development settings.
Why would NASA (or others, for that matter) need to make such
a machine part in this manner? Its press release says it
Say you want a metal object where you would like the ends to
have different properties. One side could have a high melting
temperature and the other a low density, or one side could be
magnetic and the other not. Of course, you could separately
make both halves of the object from their respective metals and
then weld them together. But the weld itself may be brittle, so
that your new object might fall apart under stress. That's not
a good idea if you are constructing an interplanetary
spacecraft, for example, which cannot be fixed once it is
This new technique involves depositing layers of metal on a
rotating rod, which allows for transitioning the metals from the
inside out. The traditional 3D printing technique involves adding
layers from bottom to top to create an object. A laser -- or
sometimes an electric beam -- melts the metal powder to create
"We're taking a standard 3D printing process and combining the
ability to change the metal powder that the part is being built
with on the fly," Douglas Hofmann, a JPL researcher and visiting
associate at Caltech, said in the press release. "You can
constantly be changing the composition of the material."
One huge leap for 3D printing technology
NASA's accomplishment removes one huge hurdle that has been
holding back metal 3D printing from increased use in production
applications, as many components are composed of more than one
metal or alloy. When we narrow this down to low-run specialty
production applications, the obstacle removed is even bigger.
That's because production speed -- another major complication --
doesn't matter much when making just one or a few very high-end
specialty components, such as NASA might produce for a
According to NASA, future space missions might incorporate
parts made using this new technique. The auto and commercial
aerospace industries might also find it useful, noted Hofmann. So
it seems likely that this new 3D printing technology could
increase the already out of this world growth projections for the
3D printing industry. According to the
2014 Wohlers Report
-- widely considered the gold standard on the industry --
revenue for the market grew by 35% year over year to
approximately $3 billion in 2013. Wohlers projects that the
market will explode to $10.8 billion in 2021. Morgan Stanley is
even more optimistic, as its bull scenario predicts the 3D
printing industry to be worth $21 billion by 2020.
The press release included no information regarding the
specific 3D printer used to produce the multialloy component. I'd
assume that NASA started with a standard model and modified it.
The release did mention "lasers," so it seems a printer based on
selective laser sintering was used, rather than one using
electron beam melting technology. 3D Systems is the only publicly
traded company that makes metal printers that use laser sintering
technology. However, some well-regarded private companies also
make these types of metal printers. Germany-based EOS is
frequently cited as a very high-quality player in this space.
is the only company that makes metal printers that use EBM tech,
which is a patent-protected proprietary technology.
The threat NASA's new technology presents to 3D Systems,
Strayasys, and the other 3D printing companies is unknown at this
point. I'll be following this story to see if we can learn what
model printer was used, what's the patent situation, and if NASA
has been partnering or plans to partner with any 3D printing
companies on this technology. Based on the limited information
available, my initial take is that the method NASA used sounds
general enough that other 3D printing companies will be able to
use a similar method to produce systems that are also capable of
printing in multialloys.
Bringing it all home... or back to Earth
Demand for 3D printers that can print in metals is in the
relatively early stages, and we're on the
cusp of an incredible growth trajectory
. While it's too soon to say how NASA's new development
might alter the 3D printing competitive landscape, it seems
highly likely that it will help turbocharge the technology's
disruption of traditional manufacturing.
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NASA Just Blasted Through One Huge 3D Printing
originally appeared on Fool.com.
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