3D Printed Chassis – The Future of Aerospace and Defense Manufacturing


Most of the electronic systems chassis deployed on today’s aerospace and defense platforms are made from aluminum alloys, with metal sections joined by dip-brazing or a bolting and bonding process. These materials deliver an outstanding combination of structural strength, lightweight, and thermal conductivity. 

Metal Additive Manufacturing (MAM) (metal 3D printing) gives mechanical engineers the freedom to create complex parts without the design constraints of traditional manufacturing methods. Initially seen as only a prototyping technology, 3D printing has matured rapidly and is currently being used, with great success, for production components in the aerospace and defense, automotive, and biomedical industries. 

Examples range from air transport rack (ATR) enclosures, hip cup replacements to engine manifolds in high-performance cars. The underlying economics make 3D printing technology well-suited for prototypes, one-off custom parts, and low-volume production runs.

Metal 3D printing can also use aluminum alloys, delivering the same set of advantages for system chassis. Metal 3D printing works by addressing very thin layers of metal powder with a laser beam that fuses the particles together. Each layer of metal powder is approximately 2 thousandths of an inch thick, or half the thickness of a human hair. The laser fuses just the particles that define the design’s cross-section for that layer, then another layer of powder is put down and another defined cross-section fused.

This automated process, moving layer by layer, is used to complete a chassis and results in a single metal piece that matches the CAD model input with extreme precision. Shapes and contours in the design are not limited by the capabilities of a CNC machining tool and there are literally no joints between sections because there are no separate sections.

Advantages of 3D Printed Chassis

Aluminum alloy 3D printed chassis deliver multiple advantages to both prime contractors and their customers, from rapid prototyping through QA and delivery processes.

Reduced Development Time

The most obvious advantage is a significantly reduced system development schedule. After completion of the CAD design, a new, custom-designed chassis can be created using 3D printing in about six weeks. This compares with roughly 26 weeks from completed design to delivery for a chassis created from milled sections joined via dip brazing. 

Faster “Fit Tests”

3D printing can create a chassis to fit any defined space within a platform. The fast development time means that a prime contractor can get something tangible in front of a customer during a project’s initial stages. This, of course, builds confidence, but it also allows a physical fit check to ensure that the chassis design is actually compatible with the platform in terms of dimensions, cabling connections, etc. 

Increased Program Success

Constructed from aluminum alloy, the same chassis used for the fit check can also be deployed after integration of the backplane, electronics, and power supplies. 3D printing not only means that any required physical changes are identified early, but also that a modified chassis version incorporating those changes can be created without delay. Issues arise in many programs; success is achieved by being able to identify and address those issues quickly. 

Because a 3D-printed chassis is a single, monolithic unit, there are no anomalies associated with seams between sections. In contrast, brazement seams sometimes have tiny holes that make a chassis less than watertight. 

One of the most exciting characteristics of 3D printing is that chassis designers can implement innovative material shapes. Lattice structures are the prime example, delivering strength with greatly reduced weight, as well as outstanding heat dissipation based on huge increases in exposed surface area.

3D Printing Solutions for Defense Applications

Atrenne’s expertise is centered on providing innovatively designed and customized solutions for defense electronics. With that focus, it is not surprising that we are first to market with an aluminum alloy 3D printed chassis, as recognized by the Military and Aerospace Electronics 2021 Technology and Innovators Awards. 

Off-the-shelf, cookie cutter products have limited utility in defense programs. While standards-based components are an essential starting point, virtually every deployed system requires some level of customization. Our 3D printing capability means we can work with prime contractors to develop and deliver customized, innovative, and cost-effective chassis on time and on budget.

Engage with Atrenne to Discuss our 3D Printed Solutions

With more than 50 years of experience, Atrenne harnesses the power of engineering innovation and integration to develop application-specific solutions that provide exceptional value to our customers. We’ve learned that all our innovations are complemented and enhanced by collaborating with our customers to solve problems. Aluminum alloy 3D printing is clearly the way future enclosures will be built. 

Engage with our team to explore how a 3D-printed chassis can bring value to your program today by compressing development schedules and enabling unique design features. We would value the opportunity to discuss your program, its schedule, and unique requirements.