The aerospace and aviation industries are no strangers to 3D printing, having always been at the forefront of technological advancement.
From designing more sustainable passenger aircraft to pushing the limits of knowledge with cutting-edge space exploration technologies, aviation and aerospace require specialised designs and materials to stay at the top of their game.
From the early days of the technology in the 1980s to the growing vitality of additive manufacturing in the 21st century, the air and space travel sectors have always utilised the processes and materials pioneered by 3D printing.
From carbon-fibre composites in the depths of space to the printed plastics inside carbon-conscious aircraft, these materials are vital to effective, safe, and sustainable additive manufacturing components.
Whether you’re an aviation design expert, a materials science enthusiast, or simply curious about the innovations propelling us to new heights, here are some of the most exciting substances being used in the heights of exploration.
Aerospace and Aviation Materials in 3D Printing
These are compounds containing at least one metal.
1. Titanium Alloys
Titanium is a widely popular choice for aerospace applications, due to a high strength-to-weight ratio and its resistance to temperature, corrosion, and other environmental factors. Often used in structural or engine parts, these are a common choice due to its excellent properties. The high strength and low weight of titanium alloys, such as Ti-6Al-4V, make them ideal for space travel designs.
2. Aluminium Alloys
Commonly used by the aviation industry for its low weight and good conductivity characteristics, aluminium alloys are found in electrical and structural parts. Also popular for their resistance to corrosion, aluminium alloys are used in aircraft for components such as airframes, wings, and other structural parts, with the aim of reducing fuel usage and improving performance.
3. Nickel Alloys
Known for their high temperature and corrosion resistance, nickel alloys such as Inconel or Hastelloy are popularly used in jet engines, for components within exhaust or engine systems. These kinds of nickel alloys ensure the durability and reliability of aviation or aerospace parts which face considerable stress.
4. Copper Alloys
Alloys including copper are used primarily for components in electrical or thermal systems. Due to the mixed traits of copper with bronze or nickel, these alloys have good conductivity traits.
5. Cobalt-Chrome Alloys
With exceptional material strength, cobalt-chrome alloys contribute durability and resistance to wear-and-tear. These high strength metals are primarily used in areas of air or space craft which experience heavy usage, such as landing gear.
6. Stainless Steel
An alloy of iron, chromium, and sometimes other metals such as nickel, stainless steel is another durable and corrosion-resistant material used in 3D printing. This makes it popular for structural elements or engine components.
These are materials made up of long molecule chains.
A high-performance crystalline thermoplastic, PEEK (polyetheretherketone) has incredible chemical and environmental properties. This makes it popular for lightweight interior parts, as well as ducts and connectors.
A high-strength translucent thermoplastic, ULTEM (polyetherimide) is particularly resistant to heat and steam. Used for interior parts as opposed to structural or mechanical components.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS) is one of most popular thermoplastics for 3D printing. This material also offers cost-effective solutions for non-critical components in aircraft interiors and other applications.
Carbon-Fibre Reinforced Composites
A composite of resin and carbon fibre, CFRPs are strong, lightweight, resistant to wear and tear and heat, and a good electrical conductor. This gives them multiple uses for interior, structural, and electrical components.
Alumina and Zirconia
Advanced ceramics offer great resistance against wear and tear and heat, making them useful in mechanical functions such as heat exchangers and turbine components. Ceramics also tend to have low outgassing properties, which is crucial for components used in the vacuum of space. Low outgassing materials minimise the release of volatile substances that can contaminate sensitive instruments or surfaces.
Why Are Only Certain Materials Used in 3D Printing?
Knowing the materials used is just as important as understanding why certain materials are commonly favoured in additive manufacturing processes. There are a host of potential reasons as to the popularity or necessity of using these materials in 3D printing.
3D printing requires precise control over the material composition and structure. This means that materials must be tailored to meet specific requirements, such as strength, weight, and thermal resistance, making sure they are ideal for aerospace or aviation applications (where consistent performance is critical to efficiency, reliability, and safety).
- Alloys, polymers, and composites are used for their lightweight properties. This is useful in 3D printing, as complex designs and geometries can lower material from components when it is not structurally or functionally required. Lightweight materials further enable aviation and aerospace parts to be as light as possible, which is key to responsible fuel use.
- Thermoplastics are plastics which can be melted and reformed almost indefinitely, making them perfect for recyclable components (or parts which break a lot).
- Whether it’s a high-strength alloy for structural components or a heat-resistant polymer for internal airways, a good diversity of materials allows designers and engineers the freedom to choose the most suitable substance for any given application.
- Materials must be resistant to corrosion or chemical degradation, especially for components exposed to harsh environmental conditions. Ensuring the longevity of aerospace or aviation components is crucial for safety and reliability.
- Materials can only be used if there is an established 3D printing process and parameters for their successful implementation in applications for this sector.
3D printing supports a wide range of materials, including metals, polymers, composites, and ceramics. This diversity of materials allows engineers to choose the most suitable material for a given application, whether it’s a high-strength metal for structural components or a high-temperature-resistant polymer for interior parts.
In the aerospace and aviation sectors, the use of additive manufacturing has become a critical aspect of both design and production. On the road to carbon neutrality, resource sustainability, and improved manufacturing efficiency, it is now an indispensable tool for these industries.
The selection of materials enhances performance and durability, reduces weight and fuel use, improves safety, and opens up new avenues for improvement and innovation. New horizons await the aerospace and aviation sectors with the further adoption of 3D printing.