3D Printers

3D printing: helping the US blow stuff up

It isn’t just planes, trains and automobiles that work more effectively when they’re lighter, stronger and 3D printed. Now the US Missile Defense Agency has turned to ExOne to create silicon carbide components.

The three-year deal is worth more than 1.5 million and the end result should be lighter, faster and more efficient missiles that can travel further on a set fuel load. ExOne uses a binder jetting technique that is perfect for this job.

What is binder jetting?

Binder jetting involves using a liquid binder, selectively applied to powder particles, to form a solid object in a specific shape. It has a number of benefits and can be used to produce finished products in metal, sand and ceramic.

Silicon Carbide is a ceramic, so it may need post curing after the initial binder jetting process.

And what is Silicon Carbide?

Silicon Carbide is a hard wearing ceramic that is often used in high-performance brakes in sportscars thanks to its resistance to high temperatures and general durability. That makes it perfect for the missile support structures that the MDA is interested in printing.

Rick Lucas, ExOne’s Chief Technology Officer, commented, “We are pleased to have the opportunity to work on this exciting project with the MDA.  This application demonstrates the unique benefits of our binder jetting technology as it applies to direct printing; in this instance we will be developing silicon carbide materials for missile component support structures.

“Compared with traditional designs, our 3D printed components will allow the MDA to improve its ballistic missile defense system performance and reduce weight through unique designs and materials, which are key benefits of binder jetting 3D printing for this and many other industries.”

A massive industrial mold maker from ExOne

What can ExOne printers do?

ExOne provides industrial 3D printers and is at the cutting edge of binder jetting technology. Its printers can produce parts of up to 735 x 355 x 355 mm in ExOne’s patented Nickel-based superalloy, IN Alloy 625, and other metals that have found favour as impellers and turbine blades that have to withstand incredible forces.

The company also specialises in printers that produce sand cores and molds for rapid casting of one-off or limited run components that can go up to 2200 x 1200 x 700mm. Binder jetting as a process can produce much larger structures, too, and has produced architectural structures as big as a room. The silicon carbide missile parts are likely to be smaller than that.

Just in time manufacturing with major consequences

3D printing should give it the capacity to indulge in more real world experimentation to perfect their designs. It also gives them the ability to stock up rapidly if the worst happens and the US suddenly needs a large amount of short or long-range missiles. It’s just in time manufacturing, with the fate of the nation at stake.

There is a payoff for the man and woman in the street here. The capacity to stock up the armoury in a hurry means that the US government does not need to stockpile weapons to the same extent.

That means it can simply have the plans and the production ready to go at all times, but it does not need to produce the missiles that we all hope will never be required. By moving to 3D printing the US military could, potentially, produce missiles and other weapons on site in the future, too, which will be a massive advantage.

As an industry, 3D printing should take this as yet another ringing endorsement. Missiles and military equipment just has to work, perfectly, and it’s a clear sign of the growing confidence in additive manufacturing that the MDA is turning to 3D printed parts on a much larger scale.