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3D printing, married to traditional metal casting, could reshape manufacturing

Lucas Mearian | June 19, 2017
A proof-of-concept project could save airlines hundreds of millions of dollars.

"While additive manufacturing holds great promise for the future of manufacturing, it's still very new for many product developers. Casting, by contrast, has been around for millennia and is incredibly well understood," Autodesk research scientist Andreas Bastian said in a statement. "There are hundreds of thousands of engineers, foundries, and factories with deep expertise in it. That's one of the reasons I am looking for a bridge between the two."

For the past year, Bastian has been working at Autodesk's 27,000-square-foot technology center in San Francisco to produce the lighter airline seat. Bastian used the algorithms in the Netfabb 3D design software to create an intricate latticework that resulted in a seat just as strong.

"We leapt at the opportunity to work with Andreas and Autodesk. It's an exciting project and allowed us to pioneer some new techniques for magnesium casting," Paul Leonard, Aristo Cast's chief engineer, said in a statement. "It also gave us a chance to learn more about advanced design and optimization techniques. That's still quite new in our industry."

While a breakthrough for airline seat frames, what Autodesk and Aristo Cast is similar to what is being tested in other industries.

Autodesk 3D printing airline seats
Autodesk. Aristo Cast workers remove e metal casted airline seats.

Ford Motor Co., for example, has been using a myriad of 3D printing technologies to manufacture working prototypes for car and truck parts.

The carmaker has five 3D prototyping centers, three in the U.S. and two in Europe. At its Dearborn Heights, Mich. facility, 14 different industrial 3D printers turn out 20,000 parts a year. A single print run on one machine can create anywhere from a few parts to hundreds.

One 3D printing method, called binder jet printing, lays down layer upon layer of sand. Each successive layer of sand is bound to the last with adhesives to create a mold for making metal prototype parts that used to take up to 10 weeks to create using conventional molds.

Autodesk 3D printed airline seat
Autodesk Autodesk researcher Andreas Bastian displays how lightweight the new seat frame is.

Today, using binder jet printing, prototype molds can be used to produce hundreds of molds on a single machine in about a week.

Another method in use at Ford is laser-sintering, where several machines perform rapid prototyping of parts by melting hundreds to thousands of successive layers of fine silica together. What emerges from the printer is an amorphous block of powdered silica from which dozens of hardened parts are removed by hand and cleaned with a brush and vacuum.


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