Boeing and Lotus Join Forces to Advance AM Processes and Materials
Kyle Maxey posted on July 16, 2014 |

3D printing, carbon fiber, materials, processes, lotus, boeingOne makes planes, the other designs race cars. It would seem that on face value Boeing and Lotus Racing have little in common aside from a need for speed. However, just beneath the surface both companies rely on different permutations of the same physical processes to achieve success.

For Boeing, aerodynamics is the critical component that provides their aircrafts with lift while also shaving off wind resistance, making flights more fuel-efficient. For Lotus, the same aerodynamics are what keep their cars pinned to the track as they race around corners is search of F1 titles. Though one application is airborne and the other bound to the earth, both firms share the need for accurately reproducible 3D printed prototypes.

In a new video recently distributed by the Boeing/Lotus venture, Brett Lyons, a materials and process engineer at Boeing, discusses how important 3D printing has been for the prototyping and development phase for both companies. While that story is important, it’s one that everyone in the AM industry is pretty familiar with.  What caught my attention was Lyons’ mention of integrating recycled carbon fiber into Lotus’ additive manufacturing scheme.

One critical downfall of additive manufacturing, and in particular laser sintering, has been its inability to produce components with reliably accurate mechanical properties. In the Boeing video Lyons mentions that his team has “figured out a way to take recycled carbon fiber from Boeing production and integrate that into material such that … we have fibers going in all different directions.”

That’s pretty impressive.

In fact, the reason that many 3D printing techniques (excluding metal sintering) have such weak mechanical performance is due to their additive nature. As layers of material are built up it’s nearly impossible to ensure that adhesion between layers will be consistent or that materials will lay in the proper direction.  Because of their layer direction dependence many 3D prints are inherently weak or at best non-uniform. For high-end applications those results aren’t acceptable.

Lotus and Boeing, however, saw this problem as an opportunity to modify the materials they use to produce critical prototypes. Using their machine’s sintering process Boeing and Lotus have been able to add, shorter particles to each successive layer of their prints lending them a  controllable crisscrossed layering pattern that gives each component greater and more uniform strength and stiffness.

While much of the news around 3D printing continues to focus on how the technology will deliver on-demand consumer products and widgets, industry is using additive manufacturing to push the boundaries of high performance design.

These two divergent narratives make me wonder, will 3D printer manufacturers have the capacity to satisfy both worlds? Furthermore, will industry end up advancing the state of the art in AM materials and processes so rapidly that printer manufacturers can’t keep up with the highly specialized, industry specific materials and processes being developed?

The future of AM is yet to be written, yet it seems that now, more than ever, the future of AM is as uncertain as it is bright. I for one feel that any industry contribution towards AM’s maturation is excellent news. AM is transformative technology but without processes that create uniform performance and quality, 3D printing will never satisfy its full potential.

Image and Video Courtesy of Boeing/Lotus

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