The world's largest 3D printed titanium aircraft part was displayed at the 16th China International High-tech Expo earlier this year. The part was built on a Laser Engineered Net Shaping (LENS) 3D printer and is a critical component for the J-20 or J-31 Chinese stealth fighter. The company behind the creation of the hi-tech jet part is AVIC Laser, formed in part by Professor Huaming Wang, creator of the mammoth 3D LENS printer used to build the part.
This is the first time that a 3D printed aircraft part of this size has been manufactured or publicly displayed. AVIC Laser is on record as saying that while this is the largest piece they've printed so far, the J-16, J-20, and J-31 Chinese fighters are also being designed to use 3D printed pieces made from titanium and M100 steel.
3D printing with titanium offers several advantages to the aerospace industry. The new technology breaks manufacturers out of the injection molding practice that has traditionally been used to create components of this type. Injection molding is costly, time consuming and can create massive amounts of material waste. "For example, the production of a component might involve the use of three metric tons of steel, but after machining, the part may weigh just 144 kilograms," said Professor Wang.
3D printed parts on the other hand, can cost around 50% less than traditionally made parts and create far less waste in the process. "With 3-D printing technology, you can produce sophisticated aviation industry components in just half the time and at half the expense of traditional manufacturing methods," said Lu Bingheng, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering. "In the field of aviation applications for 3D printing, China is making synchronous progress with the developed countries. This technology will be widely used in aviation worldwide and will be a sharp competitive edge in the field."
Laser printing of critical aerospace components is happening globally. Everyone from Boeing to Airbus is making use of the technology, although some companies are using it to produce prototype parts instead of directly inserting the parts into operational aircraft. NASA is on board with 3D laser printing as well, they are using a Selective Laser Sintering process to produce components for their new rocket engines.