By Glen Martin | Oct 27, 2021
El Segundo, California
Specialty aerospace components
It's not your father’s 3D printing anymore. In fact, it's not 3D printing at all. These days, the preferred term -- at least in the industrial sector -- is "additive manufacturing."
"3D printing is more of a hobbyist's term," explains Madera.
As the CEO of Morf3D, an El Segundo-based company that creates aerospace components via additive manufacturing, Madera should know. A management and supply chain strategy consultant by trade, he launched his company in 2015 following a detailed investigation of emerging opportunities in advanced technology.
"I found that many aerospace companies were experiencing issues with certification processes, and I realized I could help them with that," says Madera. "Aerospace is a highly regulated industry, and the certification of products can involve multiple entities, including NASA and the Department of Defense. This inspired the original basis of Morf3D, which is to help companies get their products from ideation to a commercial level of production."
But within short order, Madera realized his company could greatly increase its own purview and profitability by expanding its services to production.
"What drew me to production was the simple fact that additive manufacturing allows you to create more complex multifunctional objects than is possible with traditional manufacturing," says Madera. "I realized we could add value not just for our customers, but for the industry at large."
In 3D Manufacturing 1.0, objects were typically created from polymers, which is as far as it went. But in many industries, including aerospace, metal alloy products are often required. Thanks to late generation machines that employ metallic powders as the feedstocks, that is now possible
As Madera intimates, metallic components created by additive manufacturing are studies in seamless and elegant unity. Unlike traditionally constructed products, they are not connected via welds or fasteners, nor are they cast from molds. Instead, they're created by stacking one thin layer of material at a time, utilizing a laser as an energy source. How thin? Anywhere from 20 to 90 microns, says Madera. By comparison, a human hair is typically 70 microns thick.
These industrial scale "printing" machines are literal foundries. They can already produce some fairly large components and will only continue to evolve in the coming year or so. Morf3d currently fabricates objects that range up to 16 inches to a side -- which is a pretty hefty widget for an aircraft or spacecraft.
"Further, in the very near future, we're getting machines that are capable of producing an object [with a cubical dimension of] 450 mm [18 inches] and a build height of 1000 mm [39 inches]," says Madera. "And in the next few months, our capabilities will range up to 600 mm [23 inches] and more."
Morf3D's expansion into production is more than a new direction for the company, says Madera: it's an effort to scale additive manufacturing generally.
"We continue to certify components, but we also view production as an expansion of our certification services," Madera says. "It's a means of testing and confirming the validity of entire production processes and the systems that make the components. As an industry, we need to standardize processes, and that’s not a simple thing to do by any evaluation."
This is why the company has launched the Applied Digital Manufacturing Center, a consortium dedicated to establishing and certifying the standard processes that will allow additive manufacturing to scale globally.
"We're partnering with Nikon, Siemens, EOS, SLM, and other leaders in the additive manufacturing space to directly and collaboratively address the challenges of scaling," says Madera. "This is powerful technology that can change the world, in a certain sense, we've all been artisans to this point. Now we're getting together to create universal standards. It's something we can't do separately, and we're greater than the sum of our parts."
Challenges: "Scaling up the supply chain is a big challenge," Madera observes. "How do we design products, demonstrate value, and then scale it to the point that it's commercially feasible? How do we ensure we have the hundreds or thousands of machines needed and adequate supplies of the right feedstocks?"
Opportunities: "Our biggest opportunity is creating a digital certification process," says Madera. "Currently, we take products and test them through destruction, identifying areas that need correction in the process. That takes a long time and costs a lot of money. But if we gather sufficient data on an object and create a digital twin, we can stress test it quickly and accurately in a computer. Now expand that to an entire production system. We could create a digital version of a production process that will capture any anomalies that might impact the end products. That would allow rapid scaling through the entire industry."
Needs: “Capital or talent?" Madera queries. "How about both? Additive manufacturing is a capital-intensive business. The machines cost from a million dollars plus to multiple millions. On the engineering side, we see a lack of practitioners. Additive manufacturing is certainly developing as a discipline and profession, but it's not exactly hot in the universities yet. Still, there's quite a bit of money coming from aerospace, and we expect increasing interest."