Direct digital manufacturing is making fast strides for low-volume applications requiring complex detail, but some significant issues remain. Design engineers require process verification, particularly for high-end parts. For example, the widespread adaption of closed-loop process controls about a dozen years ago provided verification that required process parameters in the injection molding process were being maintained. Direct digital manufacturing systems were originally developed by companies in the rapid prototyping business, where such requirements were not necessary. Parts were simply required for form and fit, and not so much for functional testing. There is often considerable process variation in the new additive fabrication systems being developed for manufacturing directly from digital files. Improvements will come, however, and the new systems are certainly worth a look in several situations, particularly those where there are constant design change orders.
Alcoa has unveiled a new manufacturing and materials technology for making aluminum sheet, aimed especially at automotive, industrial, and packaging applications. If all its claims are true, this is a major breakthrough, and may convince more automotive engineers to use aluminum.
NASA has just installed a giant robot to help in its research on composite aerospace materials, like those used for the Orion spacecraft. The agency wants to shave the time it takes to get composites through design, test, and manufacturing stages.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is working with architects Foster + Partners to test the possibility of using lunar regolith, or moon rocks, and 3D printing to make structures for use on the moon. A new video shows some cool animations of a hypothetical lunar mission that carries out this vision.
If there's one thing 3D printing's good for, it's customization. New Balance Athletic Shoe Company has begun using 3D printing to make customized spike plates for its running shoes made for members of its Team New Balance runners. They provide better traction and shave off a tiny bit of weight.
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