In the industrial world, the rise of 3D printing — or additive manufacturing — has been a revelation in cost savings and efficiency. The market is growing exponentially as industries realize the benefits of additive manufacturing — and the aerospace industry is no exception. Aerospace manufacturers have achieved varied levels of adoption, yet one thing is unequivocally clear: these adopters stand to benefit immensely.
Let’s explore how industry players have hopped aboard, and how printing will impact these adopters moving forward.
Why Additive Manufacturing?
Today’s products are defined by their ability to uphold both form and function, especially as designs become increasingly intricate. There are now many more moving parts and components involved in every application. Furthermore, companies have introduced complex geometries and curvature into their designs. These changes have prompted responses from the manufacturing realm.
Traditional manufacturing processes aren’t highly adept at crafting intricate shapes — a lot of tooling, machining, and post-processing is needed to get designs where they need to be, which can increase lead times and overall costs. For example, CNC machinery is highly expensive and specialized and comes with its own workforce requirements. Under the additive model, an equivalent level of production may be achieved with far fewer machines, without sacrificing functionality.
The aerospace industry is expected to experience a boom, and ongoing technological advancements will occur in lockstep. Imagine how streamlined production — even for critical parts like nozzles, controls, and suspension components — might supercharge output in the long run. The same applies to high-volume contractors who produce anything from engines and aircraft to naval craft.
Benefits of Additive Manufacturing for Aerospace
Additive manufacturing’s widely known benefits include lower costs and higher speeds when compared to conventional manufacturing. It comes as no surprise that the aerospace industry reaps both of these benefits when applying additive manufacturing to their product development cycles.
Numerous applications can benefit from 3D printing’s rapid prototyping and production flexibility — even a single 3D printer can produce a nearly-limitless breadth of designs respective to its internal dimensions. Thermoplastics, alloys, metals, and mixed materials are essential pieces of today’s products. Additive manufacturing allows engineers to conceptualize — and ultimately create — multidimensional, complex parts at a faster clip, as very few restrictions are placed on structure, orientation, and overall finish quality.
How Does the Aerospace Industry Currently Use Additive Manufacturing?
Presently, 3D printing serves a handful of different purposes across pertinent industries, filling a role in research and development — an outlet that aerospace players invest in. It’s also used for proof-of-concept projects, where small-batch and singular production are common. Companies routinely employ additive manufacturing for prototyping or scaled production projects.
3D printing can mean something different to everyone, so how are these industries making their mark? Prototyping and proof-of-concept made up the vast majority of printing applications across all industries last year — aerospace investments have somewhat mirrored that trend.
Though 3D printing emerged in 1984, today’s modern production hardware (and the tasks at hand) are many magnitudes more complex than they have previously been. That trust in additive manufacturing is particularly hard-earned in these industries, where safety and reliability are paramount.
Aerospace Application Case Studies
Let’s take a look at a few more specific examples of aerospace companies that are currently using additive manufacturing today.
It’s no doubt that hands-on training is essential in the engineering field. Maintenance crews and engineers must have an intimate understanding of how mechanical components operate, coexist, and even malfunction. This is where surrogate parts come in, which are physical, 1:1 placeholders for existing parts to help alleviate expensive issues that come from creating multiple, finalized parts. 3D models can get the job done inexpensively while providing a user-friendly learning experience, which is why NASA commonly use additive manufacturing.
Airbus started using metal additive manufacturing to produce aerospace components in 2014, the year the company made history for flying a 3D printed part on a commercial jetliner for the first time. According to Airbus, weight reduction is another driving factor for aerospace manufacturers to employ 3D printing technologies, as it directly leads to lower fuel consumption. “Every kilogram saved prevents 25 tons of CO2 emissions during the lifespan of an aircraft,” states the company’s website. The part on the aircraft was a titanium bracket, which sounds like a small step for the early adopter. However, the improvements made to the supply chain of this metal part were noticeable enough to make 3d printing technologies an ongoing effort for the company.
Boeing is another big player in the aerospace sector that has made an ongoing effort to make additive technology a part of its process. In addition to investing in 3D printing startups like Morf3D, Boeing has worked on numerous projects that incorporate additive manufacturing. One of their largest (literally) projects was a 12-foot-long, single-piece tool for the 777X program, created in partnership with Thermwood. New technology was used to fabricate the tool in just one piece, which cut costs and reduced the printing process, as fewer parts needed to be printed.
The future of Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace
Significant investments have been set in motion, signaling confidence in 3D production. As more experiments follow, the world can likely expect aerospace companies to claim additive manufacturing as a central pillar of their operations.
The introduction of cloud-based software like Fusion 360 has made it even easier to implement additive manufacturing into your own workflow — whether you’re working for an aerospace company or starting a company of your own. Fusion 360 is a CAD/CAM/CAE and PCB software that unifies design, engineering, electronics, and manufacturing into a single platform. What are you waiting for? Download Fusion 360 today.