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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

A Bit More about 3D Printing of Composites


I thought I’d continue on from where I left off in the last post in this series, and include more than just houses in 3D printed composite material infrastructure. As you can see from the pics in this post, there’s lots here to talk about. And of course, there is a lot more going on than even what these pictures represent.

First, for basic infrastructure, the top left pic is a 3D printed section of a composite bridge deck. While this one is made from string and glue (they call it FRP or Fiber Reinforced Plastic in the industry), there are also 3D printed steel structures. There are bridges, columns, beams for buildings, even 3D printed reinforced recycled plastic being used as a replacement for reinforced concrete.

And of course, there are 3D printed fiber reinforced concrete buildings – and more than just the houses that I showed last week. The image to the right is the artist's concept for a new 3D printed reinforced concrete school building in Ukraine. They have laid the foundation for this school in Lviv in the midst of a conflict zone and amid the battle damaged streets of this very heavily bombed city – thanks to the Russians. They are doing this because of the speed at which they can get the building built and in service. They are also doing it because it may be stronger than some of the other buildings in the area and may even withstand attacks by Russian drones. What the Ukrainians are worried about is the mental health of the children whose schools have been bombed and blasted into rubble. The sooner they can get these kids back into a normal routine of going to school the better.

The aerospace industry and NASA are also getting in on the 3D printed composites bandwagon for their major infrastructure projects. I just had to show a pic of the three Airbus engineers sitting in the midst of their mockup of the coming 3D printed aircraft from Airbus. While this is a miniature aircraft, it is entirely 3D printed, and it is going to be used to test concepts for scaling this up to the size of an A380. That will be quite a feat if they can pull it off. Getting a 3D printed airliner certified by both the European and US aviation regulators will be no easy feat.

And of course, NASA is also toying with 3D printing for their future aircraft and for the ability to rapidly build habitat on Mars. The pic to the right is a concept for an aircraft that is made entirely from 3D printed nano structural panels that can individually move to tailor the airflow over the entire aircraft. That is a very interesting concept and could revolutionize both military and civil aircraft. And just think of both how efficient and how stealthy an aircraft like that would be.

The rest of the images in this post are all about rockets. Relativity Space in Long Beach is very close to finishing their first 3D printed orbital-class Terran rockets. The founders of Relativity come from Blue Origin and SpaceX, where both were very high level engineers in their respective and competing companies. They have the world’s largest metal 3D printer – they call it “Stargate” – with which they are 3D printing the rocket motor case for the booster section of their first Terran rocket. And, while this is a metal 3D printed rocket, they have developed a number of alloys that you can’t make with a normal metal alloying process. What they are doing is proprietary, but it basically comes down to being able to print a single layer from several print nozzles, each of which is printing a different metal. Since the drops that are printed are small enough, when the metal solidifies it becomes an alloy. And this actually makes it a metallic composite.

NASA is 3D printing metal rocket structures as well. The image to the right is of a NASA 3D printed rocket nozzle that is the size of the nozzle on the Saturn 5 booster that took Americans to the Moon. The metals that are needed to withstand the heat and ablation of the rocket blast are notoriously difficult to 3D print, but NASA has figured it out.

And finally, the image to the left is a 3D printed concrete composite rocket launch pad. What is shown in the pic is a sub-scale prototype of a launch pad for the Artemis booster that was printed by ICON – the company I wrote a bit about last week. The intent for this pad is to 3D print it on the Moon as both a launch and landing pad for moon missions. This is part of the infrastructure that NASA intends to develop and launch to the moon to build infrastructure on a planetary body that is not Earth. The intent of course is to develop and prove out these technologies on the Moon before venturing off to Mars. Good stuff.

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