I recently visited the lab of the Alliance for the Development of Additive Processing Technologies (ADAPT) (http://inside.mines.edu/ADAPT-Home). Hosted by the Colorado School of Mines, ADAPT is an excellent example of the close collaboration between industry and academia supported by state government.
ADAPT is a research & development consortium that helps industry to improve additive manufacturing processes using data obtained though highly sophisticated tests and analysis carried out at the ADAPT Center of the Colorado School of Mines. The lab is a unique facility that was set up thanks to the initial contribution of the founding partners (Fouston – a small high precision machining company, Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace and the Colorado School of Mines) and a grant from the Colorado Office for Economic Development and International Trade.
I talked to Branden Kappes, Operations Director at the ADAPT Center, about the relevance of additive manufacturing for the aerospace sector. He underlined that additive manufacturing not only allows design of very complex components in a manner that traditional manufacturing does not; it also allows using the same manufacturing equipment to produce a whole variety of components without having to redesign the production lines, as traditional manufacturing would have to. This allows for great flexibility and has an obvious impact on production costs and delivery times.
Supply chains are much shorter than those of traditional manufacturing, which would normally require different materials to be used and subparts to be assembled. In additive manufacturing, the essential component is the alloy/s powder that will be used to produce the component. Shorter supply lines mean potential cost savings, efficiency gains and less exposure to supply shortages.
There are still obstacles to the generalisation of additive manufacturing. It is a very complex, non-linear process that involves a tremendous degree of variability.
3D manufacturing requires a combination of domains of expertise (such as engineering, computer science, physics, metallurgy and chemistry) in a single process in a manner that is not normally required in traditional manufacturing.
The ADAPT Center is currently working on the development of different alloys to be used in 3D manufacturing, including shape memory alloys – alloys with a particular shape encoded in its structure – which have interesting applications in additive manufacturing. Different alloys can be used in the manufacturing of one particular component if required as additive manufacturing allows for functionally graded alloys in the production process.
Additive manufacturing can have very interesting applications in space activities, including space exploration. It can produce highly complex components or parts for space missions at reduced costs here on Earth and may also facilitate producing them in space when and where they are needed. Additive manufacturing can bring down costs and contribute to the development of commercial space.
Additive manufacturing has also numerous possible applications in other fields, such as bio medics. For example, 3D manufacturing can produce a prosthesis that can perfectly match the anatomy of a patient – which has obvious applications on Earth as well as in human space exploration.