Boeing Co to use 3D-printed Plastics parts for its Starliner Space Taxis

Boeing StarlinerBoeing Co has subcontracted to make about 600 3D-printed parts for its Starliner space taxis to a small company so that key components required for the United States manned space program are being built with additive manufacturing.

The company, privately held Oxford Performance Materials, will get strategic investment of $10 million from advanced materials company Hexcel Corp adding to $15 million which Hexcel invested in May and thus raising Hexcel’s equity stake to 16.1 percent, Oxford and Hexcel said.

Commercial production of high-grade parts for space ships, aircraft engines and other critical equipment in place of making prototypes is a demonstration in the shift in 3D printing.

Larry Varholak, president of Oxford’s aerospace business, speaking in an interview said that Oxford’s parts will help Boeing to reduce costs and save weight on each seven-seat capsule, compared with traditional metal and plastic manufacturing.”What really makes it valuable to NASA and Boeing is this material is as strong as aluminum at significantly less weight,” he said. According to Boeing, the weight savings on Oxford’s parts is about 60 percent when compared with traditional manufacturing.

NASA has contracted to build three Starliner capsules under a $4.2 billion contract to Boeing. Entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX is building a competing capsule under a separate NASA contract of  $2.6 billion. Oxford has already shipped parts for the Starliner made of plastic known as PEKK that resists fire and radiation.

Oxford, based in South Windsor, Connecticut, started as a materials science company in 2000 and added 3D printing in 2006. It also makes aircraft parts and cranial and facial implants, as well as replacement human vertebrae. Use of 3D technology is increasing. Sales reached $1 billion in 2007, jumped to nearly $5.2 billion in 2015 and are expected to hit $26.5 billion by 2021, according to the Wohlers Report, which analyzes the sector.

Aerospace already accounts for about 17 percent of 3D printing revenue, ranking second after industrial and business machines but ahead of automotive, consumer, electronics and medical products, according to Wohlers.

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