The flexibility of 3D printing allows multiple design iterations to be considered and prototyped. [Image: Dassault Systèmes]
Additive manufacturing promises to make aircraft fly higher, faster, and more fuel-efficiently than ever before.
Accurate, functional prototypes are great. Certified production parts are even better. Each of these product lifecycle stages presents its own unique set of challenges, but of all the manufacturing technologies available today, additive manufacturing is the best suited to meet these challenges—that is, at least some of the time, for some of the parts.
The Current State
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is currently being used to produce a broad array of aerospace components for companies both large and small. Notable examples include:
The Boeing Company is working with aerospace and defense contractor Norsk Titanium AS to print four different structural parts for the 787 Dreamliner, potentially shaving several million dollars off the cost of each airplane.
Morf3D Aerospace, a Boeing supplier, has built a business on the 3D printing of satellite and helicopter components, and recently received funding from the aerospace giant to scale up its additive processes for high-volume part production.
In a proof of concept exercise, GE Aviation 3D printed the lion’s share of a miniature jet engine able to spin at a whopping rate of 33,000 RPM, giving aerospace engineers a clear indication of where additive is taking the industry.
And of course everyone in the aerospace industry has heard about CFM International’s 3D printed fuel nozzles for the LEAP engine, a novel design that reduced part count from 18 pieces to just one, while cutting fuel consumption by 15%, and component weight by 25%.
With successes like these, the question then becomes: why isn’t 3D printing being used to produce far more aerospace industry components? For starters, additive manufacturing is not scalable enough (yet) to support massive structures such as wing spars and fuselage components. Nor is it fast enough (yet) to support large-scale production, and replace traditional subtractive manufacturing, 3D printing’s alter ego.
Fast and Flexible
This will certainly change as 3D printing evolves and demand grows, but in the meantime, it cannot compete with traditional manufacturing methods, at least in many key areas. Where it can compete, though, watch out: with multiple printing technologies at their disposal, aerospace designers can now build extremely complex, highly accurate parts in metals and polymers. In an industry where weight is money, aerospace designers are creating bold new solutions to the age-old problem of how to make aircraft lighter, stronger, and more fuel-efficient, which all add up to significant cost savings.
It’s the flexibility offered by 3D printing that may be the biggest game-changer for the aerospace industry. Unlike conventional manufacturing methods (e.g., machining and injection molding), additive manufacturing requires no tooling or fixturing. This reduces project costs, development time, and design constraints.
The same 3D printer and 3D printing process used to build one piece can be used to build 100 or 100,000 pieces significantly reducing tooling costs. A new part can be in your hands in 24 hours, with the option of producing multiple part iterations concurrently. 3D printing streamlines the product lifecycle of a part.
The flexibility of 3D printing offers startup aerospace firms many advantages. Limited funding motivates start-ups to speed up the concept-to-delivery development cycle. A small-sized company must be nimble and efficient to stay in the game. Their objective: move from iteration A to B to C quickly, and then deliver on the final, certified design in the shortest time possible. These goals aren’t necessarily easy to achieve, but are made much more feasible for companies willing to adopt an additive manufacturing strategy, whatever their size.
Additive manufacturing also provides previously unfathomable Buy-to-Fly ratios. The Buy-to-Fly ratio is the weight ratio between the raw material used for a component and the weight of the component itself. Because additive manufacturing can build a part in one piece, design limitations are eliminated. 3D printed parts can be made lighter, stronger, and more durable. Where a legacy machined part might have a 15:1 Buy-to-Fly, one that is 3D printed could have a ratio as low as 1.5:1, and trending downwards. 3D printed parts also use less material, a consideration that’s especially relevant with expensive titanium and nickel-based superalloys.
Similarly, the high cost of machining or fabricating these materials is a thing of the past, because 3D printing processes aren’t affected by the wear-and-tear of a metal’s toughness. Application-specific optimization and customization is much easier to achieve. Lead-times are shortened to days and weeks rather than months or even years.
Add it all up and 3D printing gives manufacturers the ability to respond to market changes quickly and, for the most part, effortlessly. It increases competitiveness, product performance and responsiveness to customer demands, while reducing development costs and lead-time. To an aerospace engineer, 3D printing is a dream come true.
The conversation continues in part two.