From super-strong alloys to moon bases, many of the most innovative aerospace products would be impossible without 3D printing. Here’s how NASA and others are leveraging the technology to overcome today’s biggest manufacturing challenges.

Less catchily known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing is a process that creates an object from a digital file by building it one layer at a time. While the cultural hype around 3D printing has died down since it went mainstream in the 2010s, the technology is quietly transforming the aerospace industry.

what challenges does 3D printing solve in the aerospace industry?

Additive manufacturing eliminates many of the intermediate steps in traditional supply chains, making it faster and cheaper to manufacture parts. That’s a critical advantage in today’s engineering landscape, where skilled talent is scarce, and supply chain disruptions are a constant threat.

The 3D printing process enables aerospace engineers to create objects with different materials inside and outside. Parts that are lightweight and have complex shapes are easier to produce. And since the process produces less waste and takes up less space, it helps aerospace companies manufacture parts more sustainably.

how is 3D printing advancing space exploration?

NASA has long embraced 3D printing and is in the vanguard of innovations in this technology. Recently, a NASA team applied thermodynamic modeling and leveraged 3D printing to develop NASA Alloy GRX-810. This oxide dispersion strengthened (ODS) material can withstand greater temperatures, is more malleable and lasts more than 1,000 times longer than existing state-of-the-art alloys.

In a collaboration with AI Spacefactory, NASA has developed a blueprint for a 3D-printed structure on the moon. Called LINA (Lunar Infrastructure Asset), the structure will help protect astronauts and space missions as well as minimize human disturbance during lunar exploration. NASA is also pioneering 3D printing in zero-gravity environments, so astronauts can print parts or even food while in space.

Without 3D printing, space exploration by the private sector might not be possible. Additive manufacturing technology cuts launch costs by as much as 95 percent compared to the NASA space shuttle program. US-based space industry startups SpaceX and Relativity Space both rely on 3D printing, especially when building rockets.

will additive manufacturing replace traditional manufacturing processes?

3D printing tends to be the best choice when only small quantities are needed. However, the process remains significantly slower than traditional manufacturing in mass production. Furthermore, additive manufacturing technologies still need improvements to reduce potential defects during the printing process.

Some aerospace leaders promote a hybrid model of manufacturing in which prototypes and early-stage products are additively manufactured. Then, as demand for the product rises, companies can use traditional processes to scale up manufacturing. If demand drops, they can revert to 3D printing, reducing the risk of excess inventory.

how managed projects can help 3D printing achieve lift-off

There’s no doubt that 3D printing will continue to revolutionize aerospace engineering. That said, many companies lack the in-house skills to leverage the latest developments in the technology.

A managed resource solution can provide valuable support for 3D printing in the aerospace industry by identifying and hiring qualified personnel with the skills, knowledge and experience to maximize the potential of this technology. Additional benefits to aerospace companies include cost savings due to reduced staffing overheads and improved compliance with industry regulations. Get in touch with Randstad USA to learn more about our custom aerospace and engineering solutions.