When William Boeing founded what is now one of the world’s most recognisable brands back in the early 1900’s he declared that his company had “embarked as pioneers upon a new science and industry” and asserted that no novel idea should be dismissed with the statement “It can’t be done”. Fast forward more than a hundred years and Boeing’s words appear prophetic as his company, in partnership with Oak Ridge National Laboratory has set a new world record for the largest solid object to be created through the process of 3D printing.
The past few years have seen a veritable explosion in the number of objects churned out of the average 3D printing bureau. Art pieces and decorative objects are regularly 3D-printed, and useful objects such as tools and gadgets for use in medicine, science and technology can also now be produced on demand. To beat the existing Guinness World Record, the Boeing team had to produce an object that was larger than 10.6 cubic feet.
Like many objects printed in your local 3D printing bureau, the end product was a tool, but not just any tool. Measuring an impressive 17.5 feet (5.3m) in length and 5.5 feet (1.7m) in width, the “trim-and-drill” tool is designed to aid in the production of wings for Boeing’s next generation 777X jets.
World records aside, tooling for factories is an essential yet often extremely expensive and time-consuming necessity. The Boeing project not only negated the need for expensive metal components, it also cut the manufacturing time from three months right down to a comparatively lightning speed of just 30 hours. Additionally, savings in terms of energy, time, labour and cost also come together to make this an extremely worthwhile endeavour.
The 777X series of aircraft are currently in development at Boeing’s Missouri plant, with production scheduled to begin next year and the first due to be completed in 2020. There will be 2 models: the 777-8 and the 777-9 and both variants will feature brand new engines and composite wings produced using the trim-and-drill tool.
But anyone thinking of printing their own aircraft production tools should be aware that they will need a printer much larger than those found in a mainstream 3D printing bureau. This mammoth tool was produced using Oak Ridge’s Big Area Additive Manufacturing (BAAM) machine, a printer linked with the production of the world’s first 3D printed life-sized sports car in 2015, together with a usable kayak and complete land, sea and air vessels.
The record-breaking work has cast the spotlight on just how far the 3D printing of large scale items using additive manufacturing composites has come, as well as the ability to use less material whilst still producing a functional and robust product. Boeing will continue to collaborate with Oak Ridge National Laboratory once the tool is in use, securing the 777X wings with their unique foldable wing tips, to allow drilling and machining before it is ready to be connected with the plane. Boeing will also feed back information on the tool’s performance in the manufacturing process.