When it comes to 3D printing in the aerospace industry, where are we now, in 2019? And where are we going?
This is part three in a conversational series with Stratasys’ VP of Aerospace, Scott Sevcik. Part one focuses on Stratasys’ work with Boom Supersonic, while part two looks to the shape of adoption in aerospace. Now we’re looking to current and upcoming status check-ins.
Today In Aerospace
It’s still early days for 3D printing in general — and earlier still for 3D printing in aerospace applications.
While those of us wrapped up in the 3D printing industry day in, day out can sometimes get so caught up in the fast pace of innovation, it does us all a world of good to step back every so often to remind ourselves: this is a young technology. Fast developing, quickly seeing rising adoption and increasing inflection points when it comes to realizable end-use applications — but effectively still nascent. 3D printing has only been commercialized since the 1980s; these technologies are very directly my peer.
Scott Crump filed the patent for FDM 3D printing in 1989, and that’s the technology we’re specifically focusing on in this series as we examine Stratasys’ participation and perspective. So we can say that in three decades exactly, there has indeed been progress.
“Where we are now, there’s a good level of acceptance on 3D printed tools, particularly in defense,” Sevcik said. “More broadly, there’s still a very wide range of customers, with some subsegments of the industry just getting to understand capabilities. In the near term, we will still see tremendous growth in printed tools… We’ve really dialed in on some specific capability needs on the tooling side, for example with reinforced Nylon 12, with wear resistance, with chemical resistance.”
Understanding and addressing needs has been a critical underpinning to existing adoption — and will of course remain key as usage expands beyond tooling, and even deeper into these uses.
“I think we still have tremendous room to grow in terms of the aerospace industry using FDM technology for an increasingly wide range of tools. That’s not something anybody really tends to talk about, unfortunately, but it’s saving money and time, and people are using more ergonomic tools that are optimized for their processes,” he said.
Tooling may not be the most exciting of applications, but it is providing a strong foundation for further usage. It’s not a conversation many companies are especially interested in sharing because the thought process remains along the lines of “It’s just tools.” But yes, exactly that; it’s just tools, it’s just making things that work as they need to. These are the types of “boring” applications that are actually strong proof points for 3D printing: it’s a technology that can make things that work. And that’s what we need for more serious usage to take off.
It’s a word I’m on record as hating when it comes to 3D printing, but what’s next are the “sexier” uses: the parts people see and use and touch and notice, the parts companies want to talk about. End-use parts.
“Where we are now is seeing the first companies, from several years ago, really expanding their production. I’ve encouraged Airbus to share the number of parts they’ve printed. They haven’t done that yet, but the number of parts flying is really amazing,” Sevcik said. “There’s this next wave coming of what we expect to be major, major users, because of their position as Tier One suppliers, and we still see that ahead of us. For production parts, we’re really expecting to see the flying part count grow very dramatically over the next coming years as these major manufacturers are qualifying more.”
As we discussed in part two, the adoption process entails a step-by-step trust-building centered around three areas: material, manufacturing process, and design.
With material and method having seen qualified adoption in aerospace, the industry is now turning toward more advanced design possibilities enabled by 3D printing.
This area, Sevcik predicts, will remain “relatively simple, with primarily relatively non-DfAM parts over the next couple of years as they’re just coming along with the parts.” DfAM — design for additive manufacturing — is essentially the process of optimizing designs specifically for the additive manufacturing process, which can enable the use of geometries and other parameters that had not been possible with traditional machining or molding production processes.
“As the toolsets and the ecosystem become more supportive of DfAM and connectivity between software and 3D printers —think CAD, CAM, and simulation — expand, over the next several years, we’ll be able to really for the first time explore the possibilities of all we can do,” Sevcik said.
Parts will become more complex, that is, as capabilities expand and, importantly, as users become more familiar with more integrated workflows.
“I can’t mention the name, but in June just after the Paris Air Show I was speaking with a major manufacturer, going over visions of how they would use FDM specifically or AM more broadly within the cabin. The visionaries within these organizations are realizing the tool they have in a 3D printer and the capabilities they have with it, and the organizations are working to deliver on the ideas these visionaries have,” Sevcik said.
Aerospace As 3D Printing Bellwether
It can be argued that highly regulated industries like aerospace and medical serve an important function in observing the adoption of advanced technologies: cities on a hill.
Because aerospace is so highly regulated and held to such high standards — rightly so — it is in many ways paving the path for more to come across the board. Essentially, thinking is along the lines of “if it works in aerospace, it will work in [insert less-regulated application area].”
How do 3D printing companies themselves perceive this, though?
“Aerospace is at the leading edge…companies in this industry take major steps, but they take them very slowly,” Sevcik noted.
That slow-and-steady approach is perhaps winning the race, though, as it ensures a fully-vetted, qualified approach develops.
“They are starting from a research standpoint to understand what the implications could be. They were talking tooling before we really even understood the benefit there. Aerospace in many ways, I would say, leads the entire
industry in terms of having the additive industry think differently. Those early adopters who have 3D printed thousands of tools for fighter jets and the like, lead the way,” Sevcik said, touching on an important theme of transference.
“We see now that those ideas are transferring pretty aggressively into automotive as well, for example. There are increasingly close ties between aerospace and automotive applications, as aerospace produces in higher volumes and automotive looks to aerospace for things like autonomous vehicles. These two industries are growing closer and closer, and we’re seeing more overlap from a 3D printing perspective. The tooling adoption in automotive, and other industries as well, really started in aerospace.”
Looking to usage and expansion beyond initial users, Sevcik noted that ideas proven out in aerospace — such as with short-run parts made to order — have begun to see more interest across the board.
“Personalization applications, 3D printed parts where low-volume economics are in play, are making their way into vehicles. There’s a lot of interest in qualifying the technology for broader use this way. We’re not going to see tens of thousands of parts for a couple of years, but certainly there are other industries that have recognized the value that aerospace has gained from the benefits of 3D printing and we’re seeing them follow suit,” Sevcik said.
He pointed as well to work done in the railway industry, where Stratasys technologies have come into play for digital inventory.
“Rail in Europe, among other uses, are showing that this isn’t just for aerospace but flows over quite well to other industries,” Sevcik said.