Additive manufacturing is probably one of the most important technological advances of recent years, although its application in industry has yet to be fully realised. Two of the sectors where it has been implemented with greatest success are the car industry and aeronautics, and the first consequences of this are now appearing. They were put on display in the second edition of the IN(3D)USTRY trade fair, one of the eight major events that form part of Barcelona Industry Week, which was organized by Fira de Barcelona during the first week of October.

Thales Alenia is leader in the manufacturing of satellites ©Thales Alenia Space/Alban Pichon

Because of its potential to lower its astronomic production costs, the aerospace industry was the first to experiment with the use of additive manufacturing, commonly referred to as 3D printing. First of all it was Thales Alenia Space, the main European manufacturer of satellites that incorporated this technology in 2015, and it has already sent 79 3D printed metal parts, and over 350 polymers into space as components of their satellites. The company’s director of physical design, Ángel Martínez, says that “AM allows us to make parts that are lighter, and others that are impossible using traditional methods”. Thales Alenia uses selective laser melting with great success “we are obtaining unprecedented results in terms of lowering mass and thermo-mechanical performance”, he explains.

Alas de avión, prototipos de automóvil

The wing of a commercial aeroplane in production ©Aernnova

Aernova, the main supplier of the European aviation giant Airbus, has also adapted its manufacturing processes to include 3D printing and has emerged as one of the most technologically advanced producers of large metal and polymer structures for the civil aviation sector. The company is currently working on the production of a wing for commercial aircraft that will be completely manufactured in 3D.

Another sector where additive manufacture is increasingly present is the car industry. Although the Dutch company FCA, which includes car makers such as Fiat, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep or Maserati, is applying 3D printing in the manufacture of prototypes, the greatest challenge for the future is the production of vehicle components and parts for heavy structures, which would significantly reduce their weight. According to the company’s director of additive manufacturing, Roberta Sampieri “we are working on solutions to speed up the processes and automation”. He informs us that the manufacturing times are still quite slow, “about two hours”. Sampieri has set himself the goal of “cutting back these processes” because “otherwise, AM will just be a tantalizing possibility”. “At FCA we need to make up to 1,000 parts per day and we cannot fill a factory with 1,000 3D printers to do this”, he concludes. Even so, the front grille of the Alfa Romeo Giuletta model is made entirely using 3D printing.

3D ideas

3D Public transport

For its part, the US company Local Motors is rather more advanced and is preparing a production line for autonomous vehicles entirely made through 3D printing. It is a full-scale revolution in the market, as the company’s marketing director, Carlo Lacovini, explains. “We are experimenting with 3D-printed public transport systems that are electric powered, autonomous and able to transport up to 12 persons”. The project was a response to a call from the city of Berlin to design the future of urban mobility.

Olly is the first autonomous electric public transport vehicle to be printed in 3D ©Local Motors

Local Motors uses BAAM technology (Big Area Additive Manufacture) with parts made in carbon fibre compound, and the ability to make very large components very quickly. This is achieved by melting blocks of material instead of filaments, which also reduces the manufacturing costs. This technology allows the manufacturing of hubcaps, interior components, seats and many other parts of the inner structure.

Thales Alenia, Aernova, FCA and Local Motors, who were all present at the second edition of IN(3D)USTRY ​​are only four examples of the application of a technology that is being called revolutionary despite it being too early to say how far reaching it will be or how great its impact on our daily lives will be in the near future.