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SLM Solutions 3D prints 12 inch titanium spacecraft valve body in just 6.5 days
Metal 3D printing: it’s the stuff technological dreams are made of, and could put a man on Mars thanks to its ability to massively cut down on aerospace costs. Unfortunately, it’s not without its problems either, as metal 3D printing suffers from material limitations and qualification challenges, among others. Fortunately, German metal 3D printing pioneer SLM Solutions is already fighting another significant limitation: part size. Though metal 3D printers come with notoriously small build spaces, SLM Solutions’ SLM280HL 3D printer features an unusually large 280x280mm build plate – paving the way for a much larger variety of aerospace parts. The Germans have now perfectly illustrated this with one of the largest 3D printed metal objects to date, a 12.21 x 8.74 x 8.66 inch titanium aircraft component.
Headquartered in Lübeck, Germany, SLM Solutions Group AG is a leading provider of metal 3D printing systems who have been particularly successful over the last few years. Their 3D printers are increasingly finding their way into the hands of partners from aerospace, energy, healthcare and automotive industries. A leading player in its field, SLM Solutions' recently unveiled fantastic sales figures for 2016 has also caught the eye of several industrial giants. 
But SLM Solutions has not been resting on their laurels at all, as they have been experimenting with getting the most out of their build plate. That can be quite difficult, as enlarging metal 3D printing projects brings a host of new problems to the table. Especially with materials like titanium, there’s always a danger of cracking the objects due to high residual stresses. Even if more complex geometries are possible, overcoming those mass-related problems is today’s real metal 3D printing challenge, says SLM applications engineer Mike Hansen.
Metal 3D printing: it’s the stuff technological dreams are made of, and could put a man on Mars thanks to its ability to massively cut down on aerospace costs. Unfortunately, it’s not without its problems either, as metal 3D printing suffers from material limitations and qualification challenges, among others. Fortunately, German metal 3D printing pioneer SLM Solutions is already fighting another significant limitation: part size. Though metal 3D printers come with notoriously small build spaces, SLM Solutions’ SLM280HL 3D printer features an unusually large 280x280mm build plate – paving the way for a much larger variety of aerospace parts. The Germans have now perfectly illustrated this with one of the largest 3D printed metal objects to date, a 12.21 x 8.74 x 8.66 inch titanium aircraft component.
At the same time, metal 3D printing is gruelingly slow as well, and it is very noteworthy that the SLM280HL 3D printer was able to 3D print a 12.21 x 8.74 x 8.66 inch titanium spacecraft valve body in ‘just’ six and a half days, without any interruptions. “The fact that our SLM machine can operate for that period of time without requiring cleaning or experiencing any interruptions, is in itself extremely significant,” Hansen argues.
In fact, the part itself wasn’t particularly complex. But 3D printing something of this size in such a short time simply wasn’t done before. As Hansen revealed, it was completely made possible by the inherent qualities of their SLM280HL 3D printer. Equipped with dual 400W lasers, it can be found in a price class where most 3D printers have a 250 x 250 mm build plate. Its dual laser setup creates an overlap area that allows for much faster building. Tests have already shown that quality doesn’t suffer at all from that overlap.
The 3D printed spacecraft valve body in question has been developed for a client who wanted to explore weight, cost and time-saving opportunities, and it seems as though they completely succeeded on all of these fronts. “The part’s size meant that it would have taken several weeks to machine conventionally, given that it would have required four or five setups it would have been a costly process. Casting the part would have taken even longer given that the tooling would have to be built, which could take as long as six months. And traditional tooling is expensive,” says head of applications engineering and metallurgist Richard Grylls. “We were far faster even though the cost was more. Still, in terms of the total time saved the cost is worth it for a critical part of this size.”
Hansen further revealed that they are also working on new qualification opportunities for these kinds of aerospace (or automotive) parts, intended for industries that are highly regulated and in which extensive material and parameter testing is normal. In general aerospace/aircraft requirements for inspection are quite extensive, usually involving a CT scan, a non-destructive test method, to check for porosity or voids in the part. Customers may also perform destructive testing. “We used non-destructive testing on this part, then performed a real-world test by mounting it on an engine in its intended use, and running it until it failed,” Hansen revealed.
This new achievement certainly paves the way for a lot more aerospace 3D printing projects, for a sector that so far mostly used the technology for particularly small components. But according to a Department of Energy study, aircraft weight could be reduced by 7% through 3D printing, so a vast number of opportunities can still be tackled in an industry that is very happy with one or two percentage point improvements.
These opportunities are also being seen by Brian Neff of Sintavia, a new company focused on promoting aerospace and defense 3D printing. “Within 20 years, there will be a seismic shift in how we manufacture for the aerospace and defense industry. However, producers who do not understand or are incapable of producing parts with repetitive quality will not play a role in the OEM supply chain,” Neff said. The Florida-based company has adopted three SLM 280HL systems, each with different setups.
SLM Solutions is also seeing an evolving industry in which demand for more 3D printing applications is growing. At the same time, materials and 3D printing processes are quickly becoming outdated and in desperate need of innovation. “This industry is changing on a day-to-day basis, evolving very quickly, but there is a disconnect between the pace of the evolution in additive manufacturing and the ability of some industries to keep pace with approving new materials and processes, particularly the aerospace and automotive industries,” Hansen concluded. But one thing seems certain: once metal 3D printing hits the industrial mainstream, SLM Solutions will be there.

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