Feb 24, 2016 | By Benedict

Aerospace giant Boeing has patented an additive manufacturing process for 3D printing objects while floating in space. Using multiple 3D printers and diamagnetic printing materials, the system would be able to rotate a levitating print about every axis and deposit layers from all directions.

Illustration of an isometric view of an apparatus for 3D printing a part while acoustically levitated in space

On February 4, 2016, the United States Patent and Trademark Office published the exciting patent under the name of “Free-Form Spatial 3-D Printing Using Part Levitation”. Filed by aircraft manufacturer Boeing on July 29, 2014, the patent details a novel additive manufacturing method involving multiple 3D printers, magnetic forces, and a floating printed object.

The abstract for the planned 3D printing method reads: “A part is fabricated by an additive manufacturing process while levitating in space. Constituent features of the part are formed by 3-D printing. A part levitation system allows the spatial orientation of the part to be manipulated relative to one or more print heads.”

The barely believable invention seems to have slipped under the radar since its publication earlier this month. However, should the revolutionary 3D printing method be developed, its technological implications within the industry could be significant.

3D printing currently necessitates bottom-up construction. Whether it’s FDM, SLS, SLA, or some other additive manufacturing process, each method involves building an object from the print bed upwards. Boeing’s levitation process would completely rip up the rulebook in this respect, with layers applied to the floating 3D print from all directions.

How would this rotational, floating 3D printing method change the way we use 3D printing? The ability to deposit layers to any side of a floating 3D print would, for example, completely eliminate the need for support structures, and would lift many of the gravitational restrictions currently imposed on 3D printed objects.

This levitating 3D printing business certainly sounds impressive, but how exactly would it work? Although the technology has presumably not yet been realized, the patent goes into some detail as to the physical processes behind the system. 25 individual “claims” are made within the patent, which explain potential steps in the floating 3D print process.

According to the patent, the levitating 3D printing technique would involve “forming a feature of a part by printing material into space; levitating the part; changing a spatial orientation of the part while the part is levitating; forming another feature of the part by printing material into the space; and repeating the steps of changing the spatial orientation of the part and printing material into the space until an entire part is formed.”

The first stage of the process would appear to require “printing a nugget of the material into space, and printing additional material onto the nugget.” Printing material into space would be achieved by “jetting or extruding the material into space.” Alternatively, rather than build a 3D printed object from scratch, an existing object could be levitated, with the system then able to “[print] material onto the object.” In both cases, materials would be deposited by “a plurality of print heads located at different positions around the space”.

Illustration of a perspective view of an alternate form of an apparatus for 3-D printing a part while magnetically levitated in space

The 3D printed object could be “levitated” in a number of ways. The Boeing patent claims ownership over any 3D printing process “wherein levitating the part is performed by acoustic levitation” or “magnetic levitation”, whilst “quantum levitation and electrostatic levitation” are also mentioned. Magnetic levitation would, according to the patent, necessitate “super-cooling the part, and subjecting the part to a magnetic field that produces a magnetic force repelling the part.”

The additive manufacturing system would be largely autonomous, being able to “[sense] a position of the part in the space…and [manipulate] the part based on the sensed position of the part.” It would also be able to “stabilize” a 3D printed part as it levitates within the printing space.

So could it really happen? Boeing has clearly put some thought into the many ways that levitation could be achieved, and there are good reasons why a levitating 3D printing method could prove advantageous over existing bottom-up methods. Furthermore, Boeing and the aerospace sector in general has the resources to experiment with costly and complex manufacturing methods.

After floating such an interesting idea, Boeing now must get it off the ground. We certainly hope that they can.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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MB wrote at 12/15/2018 2:22:22 AM:

hold your virtual horses

BuddyFrom wrote at 2/25/2016 2:22:37 PM:

Sounds like... WOW!

Colin L. Cini wrote at 2/25/2016 1:59:45 PM:

Publication 20160031156 "Free-Form Spatial 3-D Printing Using Part Levitation" is a published U.S. Patent Application and not a U.S. Patent. The two terms are often confused.

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