3D Printing In the Aerospace Industry

One of the first industries to invest in large scale 3D printing was the aerospace industry. Aerospace – the branch of technology and industry concerned with both aviation and space flight – has been evolving and adopting the technology as early as the 1980s.

The proof is in the numbers:

  • The aerospace and defense industries contributed 16% of 3D Printing’s $4.9+ billion global revenues in 2015
  • A more recent report by Research and Markets found a growth rate of 23% between 2017 and 2021 for the 3D printing in the sector

As commercial air travel has increased, the demand for new aircraft has led to orders of nearly 38,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years. As a result, equipment manufacturers, designers and suppliers need cost-effective solutions to produce these aircraft as quickly and efficiently as possible.

3D Printing Benefits

Due to the typically short runs of aircraft parts, the aerospace industry uses additive manufacturing for a great deal of its production. The technology can produce intricate parts that are more resilient and lightweight compared to those made using traditional techniques, which is an obvious bonus.

3D Printing in the Aerospace IndustryIn fact, EOS, one of the leaders in industrial 3D printing of metals and polymers, states that additive manufacturing can produce weight reductions of between 40-60%.

To put this in perspective, the average corporate aircraft travels 75,000 miles per month. A single component that is designed and manufactured with 3D printing (and is therefore lighter), reduces air drag by 2.1%, which in turn reduces fuel costs by 5.41%.

By cutting fuel and limiting emissions, 3D printing can subsequently help to minimize the environmental impact of air travel.

In an age of heightened environmental awareness, this couldn’t be more on trend in terms of long-term company strategy and consumer desire.

In addition, 3D printing can produce hundreds of thousands of parts without relying on expensive tooling changes involved with traditional manufacturing processes. “Tool-less” production requires less energy, since modified parts or upgrades can be produced as needed, alleviating the need for costly storage.

Aerospace parts often include internal channels for conformal cooling, internal features, thin walls and complex curved surfaces. 3D printing processes can create highly complex and lightweight structures with high stability, whilst allowing for the consolidation of multiple parts into a single component. This leads to:

  • Cost reduction
  • Reduced waste
  • Faster production times
  • Greater consistency
  • Better surface finishes across aircraft

Incorporating 3D Printing Into the Design and Production Process

3D printing is implemented at each stage of the design workflow in the aerospace industry. Here is how it works:

Design
Designs will often start off as 3D printed concept models demonstrating various aircraft. SLA and material jetting are used to create highly sophisticated and to-scale models which help to clearly convey the final concept.

Prototyping
3D printing is readily adopted in the prototyping phase within the aerospace industry. Vice President of Operations for North America at PrintForm, Bill Artley explains:

“From a full-size landing gear enclosure printed rapidly with low-cost FDM, to a high-detail, full-color control board concept model, there is a 3D printing process suited to every prototyping need.”

Production
Prior to production, tooling for injection molding, jigs/fixtures and thermoforming can be manufactured quickly and at lower cost thanks to 3D printing. While 3D printing in the aerospace industry used to be used for the prototyping phase alone, it is now used more than ever for the manufacturing of end parts too, since larger industrial printers can print quickly using a variety of materials.

Customization
Aircraft parts can be tailored to to suit particular government or company requirements thanks to 3D printing, whether it’s a specific cabin interior design or functionality tailored towards the unique purpose of a particular aircraft e.g. cargo plane, passenger aircraft or helicopter.

How 3D printing is Influencing the Aerospace Industry

The four main areas in which 3D printing is used in the aerospace industry are as follows:

  1. Jigs and fixtures: hundreds of fixtures, templates and gauges can be 3D printed, leading to a 60-90% cost reduction.
  2. Surrogates:  the placeholder parts that are used during production or training to represent components that are later installed in final assemblies. NASA and several air force bases commonly use surrogate parts on a frequent basis.
  3. Mounting Brackets: 3D printing is used to manufacture structural, low-volume metal brackets that mount complex life saving systems to the interior walls of aircraft.
  4. Prototypes: 3D printing can produce prototypes that allow designers to get a greater understanding of the form and fit of a part before production commences. It is useful for aerodynamic testing since prototypes are often fully representative of the final part. It can also be used to manufacture interior components such as door handles and intricate cockpit dashboard designs.

3D printing is also being used to make lighter and more efficient engines and turbine parts, lighter plane seats and even drones, to name but a few.

Looking Ahead

The aerospace industry uses 3D printing to manufacture end-use parts, prototype, alleviate supply chain constraints, limit warehouse space, cut storage costs and reduce wasted production materials. It is also using the technology to explore groundbreaking innovation, via reducing commercial aeroplane travel emissions, constructing in space and even bio printing in space.

As the aerospace industry continues to see the value of 3D printing, we can expect more companies to begin developing on-site 3D printing operations and investing in the technology. Indeed, on-site printing capabilities offer groundbreaking real-time design, processing, trial, and implementation of customized components.

The software for 3D printing is also rapidly evolving, which will have an even greater impact on aerospace manufacturing processes.