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China is the world's largest manufacturer. It bases much of its economy on manufacturing goods for the rest of the world. In addition to civil aerospace manufacturing, it is also focusing on the military aerospace sector. China is also big on technological development. So it comes as no surprise that the country is heavily invested in aerospace 3d printing. Because titanium is used in aerospace due to its high strength and light weight, China has focused on developing 3D laser printing to make titanium aircraft structural elements.
Their 3D printing laser melts metal at such extreme temperatures that it must be done in oxygen and nitrogen free environments, which means a vacuum chamber is required. They have devised methods of containing the work area in a vacuum without having to place the entire 3D printer in a vacuum chamber. This saves money on the chambers themselves and on maintenance.
Applying 3D printing to large structures presents difficulties because materials fabricated at high temperatures tend to warp as they cool down. This warpage is magnified across elements with large geometries. However this has not stopped China from making progress in this area. The large parts they currently use in their aircraft, demonstrate that they have dealt with warpage, material deformation, cracking, and other problems.
This capability of printing larger structures has been widely used in producing China's military aircraft from the J-16 to the new J-31. The latest carrier fighter prototype uses a 3D printed titanium load bearing component and 3D printed landing gear. Its first successful tests were carried out in the fall of 2012.
Last year, China showed off the world's largest 3D printed titanium fighter component at the 16th China International High-Tech Expo in Beijing. It will be used for the J-20 or J-31 stealth fighter.
Avic Laser says China's 3D laser manufacturing technology has been used for production of seven kinds of aircraft. This includes the Y-20 strategic airlifter, the J-15 carrier-borne fighter, the C919 airliner, and the next generation stealth fighters. This technology can save up to 90% of materials and costs. If Chinese 3D printing technology were used on the titanium forged parts of the American F-22 raptor, about 40% of its weight could be reduced.
China is also close to completing a massive 3D printer. It measures 28 meters long by 23 meters wide and 9.5 meters high. It will be able to print with carbon steel, low-alloy steel, stainless steel and others. Among the industries it will make parts for will be aerospace, nuclear, and shipbuilding. The 3D printer will allow China to challenge the United States as a leading 3D printing country.