3D Printing

SLM Solutions to develop “world’s largest” metal 3D printer for the US Air Force

Laser Powder Bed Fusion (LPBF) system manufacturer SLM Solutions has announced plans to develop the “world’s largest” metal 3D printer on behalf of the US Air Force (USAF). 

Having been subcontracted by the Concurrent Technologies Corporation (CTC), SLM Solutions now aims to build a version of its NXG XII 600 3D printer with a 1.5-meter Z-axis. Through developing what will be called the ‘NXG XIIE,’ the CTC says it could be possible to “overcome the limits of current additive manufacturing equipment,” when it comes to creating long parts with critical defense applications.

“Partnering with the CTC, a premier research and development company, will help us achieve the goal of creating a new AM capability,” said SLM Solutions CEO Sam O’Leary. “We look forward to collaborating on an AM machine that will work much faster than existing equipment and feature the largest build envelope in the industry by far.”

The SLM Solutions NXG XII 600 3D printer. Image via SLM Solutions.
The SLM Solutions NXG XII 600 3D printer. Image via SLM Solutions.

SLM Solutions in large-format AM 

In subcontracting its USAF project to SLM Solutions, the CTC has chosen to partner with a Selective Laser Melting specialist that’s experienced in developing its own large volume machines. At Formnext Connect, for example, SLM Solutions unveiled the NXG XII 600, a 600 x 600 x 600 mm capacity system, which can be fitted with up to 12 lasers, enabling it to address demanding aerospace use cases. 

Alongside the NXG XII 600, the company also markets its SLM 125, SLM 280, SLM 500 and SLM 800 3D printers, the larger of which continue to find adoption in this area. Earlier this year, Rolls Royce ordered two more SLM 500s, machines it uses to 3D print combustor tiles for Pearl 10X engines, power units which are set to fly with the Falcon 10X private jet from 2025. 

In April 2021, SLM Solutions revealed that it had worked with Safran Landing Systems as well, to 3D print lightweight landing gear parts. Using an SLM 800, the firms were able to fabricate a large-format nose piece in a way that accelerated the qualification process, while enabling the rapid iteration of different prototypes to identify the ideal design. 

Despite Nikon launching an SLM Solutions takeover bid just weeks ago, in a deal that could soon see the firm change ownership, it now appears its plans haven’t changed, and it aims to continue pushing the boundaries of PBF in aerospace. 

A piece of nose landing gear that was produced using an SLM 800 3D printer.
SLM Solutions’ SLM 800 3D printer was used to produce a novel piece of landing gear in April 2021. Photo via SLM Solutions.

A $5.2M US Air Force project 

SLM Solutions has got involved in the USAF’s latest 3D printing initiative thanks to the CTC, which having won a $5.2 million contract to develop a new machine by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), has tasked the firm with developing it. 

A specialist in scientific R&D, the CTC is a non-profit with close ties to the Enterprise Ventures Corporation, an organization that works to help start-ups transition advanced technologies to market. Between them, the companies have over 400,000 square feet of office, lab and high-bay space, as well as cutting-edge product design, development, testing, prototyping and production facilities. 

As a result, the pair have the capacity to meet US Department of Defense requirements on the fabrication of large-scale, first-of-a-kind prototype structures, and they often deploy this in aid of US government, private industry and public R&D programs. Moving forwards, having gained AFRL funding, the CTC plans to utilize these facilities alongside SLM Solutions, to develop the “world’s largest AM machine.”

“We are excited to play a role in this ground-breaking AM advancement,” added Edward J. Sheehan Jr, CTC President and CEO. “The technical work we are performing for this project includes elements of CTC’s full-service portfolio of AM capabilities including design, testing, post-processing, machining, and qualification.”

GE's Atlas 3D printer, the largest LPBF system to-date. Image via GE.
GE’s Atlas 3D printer is the current largest LPBF system to date. Image via GE.

Will it really be the world’s largest? 

When used to describe 3D printers in general, the CTC’s claims of working on the “world’s largest” could well be disputed. Being developed for the US Army, MELD and Ingersoll Machine Tools’ metal 3D printer is set to be large enough to create huge military vehicle parts. Sciaky also unveiled the world’s largest electron beam 3D printer earlier this year, which can create up to six-meter-long aerostructures. 

Compared to other LPBF systems, on the other hand, the company’s claim appears slightly closer to the mark. With a 1,000 mm³ build volume, GE’s ATLAS 3D printer remains the world’s biggest LPBF machine, and despite being capable of producing large-format aerospace, automotive and oil & gas parts, its capacity could soon be superseded by that of SLM Solutions’ and the CTC’s system. 

Once ready, the machine could also address what is a growing market for huge LPBF-3D printed rocket components. Velo3D, for example, launched its largest unit to date in June 2022, the SAPPHIRE XC 1MZ 3D printer. The firm supplies leading aerospace clients like SpaceX and Launcher, previously 3D printing E-2 rocket engine parts for the latter, thus the system’s size may well reflect demand. 

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Featured image shows SLM Solutions’ NXG XII 600 3D printer. Image via SLM Solutions.