U.S. based airplane designer, manufacturer and seller Boeing Co will install components built through the additive manufacturing technique in its ambitious Starliner space taxis. The airplane behemoth has actually collaborated with a “small company”, and has tasked it with producing around 600 3D-printed parts for the space capsules.

As per an exclusive report from Reuters, Boeing has hired Oxford Performance Materials for the task.

Larry Varholak, president of Oxford’s aerospace business, says that in comparison to the traditional metal and plastic manufacturing, getting the Oxford parts will help Boeing in cutting costs and reducing weights. He says:

What really makes it valuable to NASA and Boeing is that this material is as strong as aluminum at significantly less weight.

As per a $4.2 billion NASA contract, Boeing is building 3 Starline crew capsules. The company is facing a tough competition from Elon Musk’s SpaceX which holds $2.6 billion contract from NASA for building similar capsules. Cutting costs could help the company in generating greater profits and even help it snag future contracts.

Oxford has a history with the Starliner project. They have already shipped the fire and radiation resistant PEKK plastics being used in the project. However, Boeing has refused to answer about what percentage of the capsule’s parts have been manufactured by Oxford.

Leo Christodoulou, who is director of structures and materials engineering at Boeing says;

It’s a significant fraction of the Starliner from the aspects of design, assembly and reliability of high integrity parts. Using Oxford’s materials takes out a lot of cost.

Oxford was only a materials science company when it initiated in 2000 but began working on 3D printing technology in 2016. Apart from aerospace equipment, they also specialize in making cranial and facial implants and artificial human vertebrae. While working with  NASA, Northrop Grumman Corp and incubator America Makes, it printed objects using a plastic called PEKK which was capable of handling temperatures from minus 300 to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The same plastic is slated to be used in the starliner project as well.

Parts manufactured via 3D printing are relatively cheaper than those manufactured from any traditional process involving cutting,wielding, forging etc. They require minimal labor and tooling and also facilitate the maintenance of a “digital inventory” of the printed parts.

But despite all their versatility and potential, the customers and investors are still hesitant about the technology and seek repeatable convincing results from it.

In related news, Oxford Performance is set to announce an investment of 10 million dollars from advanced materials company Hexcel Corp soon. Hexcel has previously invested 15 million dollars in May which would raise its equity stake to 16.1 percent in Oxford.The adoption of 3D printed parts by Boeing and the funding by Hexcel is a clear indication that printed parts could do exceptionally well even under the huge stress that the outer space can subject a rocket to.

In an interview Oxford Chief Executive Scott DeFelice said;

We’re still in the show-me stage. If you don’t show me the data I’m not going to believe you.

But still, 3D printing is escalating and Aerospace alone accounts for around 17 percent of its revenue.

Terry Wohlers, chief executive of consulting firm Wohlers Associates says, the materials used in aerospace engineering are usually complex, expensive and produced in a very few quantity which makes this field  a “near perfect fit” for 3D printing.

The Starliner crew capsule will hit the launchpad for the very first time in June 2018 from Cape Canaveral, and will fly with an actual crew in August 2018, on one of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. ULA, it bears mentioning, is a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.

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