Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is reshaping the production and supply chain eco-system. Companies across myriad industries are exploring ways to leverage these evolving methods and technologies to innovate designs that were not possible using traditional methods. The aerospace and defense industry is embracing this innovative technology with its diverse printable materials to increase speed and agility in the design and development process.

Additive Manufacturing is the process of joining materials to make objects from 3D model data by successively depositing material in layers such that it becomes a predesigned shape. Ball began using 3D printing in the late 1990s-early 2000s to produce models, cable harness mock-ups, and proof of concept. Today, we are employing additive manufacturing technologies in all facets of engineering, from rapid prototyping to tooling and ground support equipment to flight hardware.

We have found that one of the most beneficial aspects of this process is that it mitigates complexity related costs. In other words, a more complex part with intricate design will not necessarily cost more than a minimalist design, as long as the design doesn’t introduce new complexities or violate AM manufacturing rules (such as aspect ratio, or minimum wall thickness) that require multiple builds to dial in the right parameters.

As with many aerospace companies,we produce many complex components in limited quantities from a variety of suppliers. The ability to rapidly produce complex components printed with advanced materials allows us to efficiently design innovative components and systems that could not be previously considered with traditional manufacturing processes.

Another major benefit of AM is part consolidation. In some instances, we achieved up to 100:1 part reduction, resulting in >4X cost reduction and 2X schedule reduction. Moreover, parts consolidation typically resulted in reduced mass, increased stiffness, and enhanced thermal paths.

Ball Aerospace is fostering a complete eco system to realize the benefits of AM. This starts with designing for AM and possessing software design tools to aid in efforts such as topology optimization and lattice structures.

Depending on the chosen manufacturing method and material, analysis of the build process may also prove fruitful – for example determining the optimum path planning for extremely large (1,400 lb.+) metal parts that accounts for thermal stress strains. Post inspection protocols are also a key part of this eco-systemto identify issues early in the manufacturing cycle.

Finally, a comprehensive materials database was created to account for all part pedigree from raw stock thru parameters to heat treat. This database includes proprietary data analytics tools capable of identifying trends and relations across materials, suppliers, and methods.

Looking to the future, we are already exploring advancements inon-orbit manufacturing. Removing the ground processing and launch environment constraints significantly change our notion of what space structures look like.

Current missions are designed to survive launch loads and to accommodate 1-g sag during assembly and test. The ability to design for on-orbit operations means the structural requirements will now be dominated by thermal loads and stability requirements, component placement interfaces, and shielding considerations. And while the space environment is harsh, it may also unlock novel alloys and techniques that take advantage of the vacuum environment and low temperature boundary conditions.

While traditional production methods will always play a role at Ball, our use of AM will continue to expand as the technology evolves. We are excited to play a role in this evolution and further contribute to its impact on design and engineering.