In the last years the use of 3D printers has increased both in the domestic and industry used. However there already exist lots of doubts and wrong concepts about their performance. Throughout this article we will try to explain what a 3D printer is, how does it work and which utilities can they present within the aerospace sector.

¿What is a 3D printer?

A 3D printer is a device able to create objects in the 3 dimensions by adding material. On the contrary, the typical methods of production remove the material from a mold, so, this method become expensive and  in which a lot of material is wasted. These printers use 3D models created by CAD programs (Computer-Aided Design)  to define the piece, then, the object is built layer by layer.


                                  Initial 3D model          Layer model          Final Object

They also exist 3D powder printers in which a mass of powder is compacted by layers. They can use ink to glue it or a laser to polymerize it and then after that, plunging it into a solidifier liquid. A very wide range of materials can be printed from thermoplastics like PLA or ABS in domestic used to metal, photopolymers or liquid resin for industry.

¿Which application do they have in the aerospace sector?

The NASA will launch this August 2014 the first 3D printer in the fourth SpaceX mission to the refueling of the International Space Station (ISS). The aim of it is to decrease the necessity to send replacement parts and so, to reduce costs of maintenance because the cost of each kilo brought to the ISS is around $10,000. Once the printer is installed, it will allow them create every kind of tools and pieces immediately.

The mission is full of difficulties that must be overcame in order to get the correct performance of the printer, among them: microgravity, air pressures, variable temperatures or lacking of power. To meet these targets they hire the company Made In Space, which built the device. It is not the first time that NASA is interested in 3D impression, the next Mars Rover has a 70% of their parts made by 3D printers.

The big companies have also realized the potential of these machines to create pieces prototypes in a quick and less expensive way. An example of this is the investment by General Electric Aviation in 10 3D printers for the end of 2015. This implies a huge decrease in the amount of material wasted in production and also in the time needed to create a part.

Which is the future of 3D printing?

Although it was invented in the 80’s, it is nowadays when they are earning interest. In fact, they have not only expanded in the aerospace sector, but in many more. We could say that we will live the “third industrial revolution”, in which everyone will have the capacity to design and create a very wide range of objects, from mockup to human organs.

César Sala, Koala 3D Labs (Colaborator of Tech For Space)

Translated by Tech For Space