Do you know the aircraft that took to the skies with a titanium 3D printed metal part installed for the first time in the aerospace industry in 2014? One of the early adopters of 3D printing, aerospace is still considered to be the highest user of 3D printing. In fact, owing to the demand for lightweight aircraft parts, it is estimated that the 3D printing market in the aerospace industry is set to touch beyond $3 billion by 2022.
Let’s explore how this manufacturing technique has been disrupting the industry.
What is 3D printing?
3D Printing or additive manufacturing is one of the top trending technologies across different industries, including oil & gas, aerospace, defense, education, etc. In 3D printing, an object is produced from a digital CAD model by adding the thin materials layer by layer successively one at a time. Some of the common 3D printing processes are stereolithography, digital light processing, extrusion, inkjet, selective deposition lamination, electron beam melting, polyjet, multi jet fusion, direct metal laser sintering, selective laser sintering, etc.
Benefits of aerospace 3D printing
3D printing is implemented in each and every stage of the design workflow – Design, Prototyping, Production, and Customization – in the aerospace industry. 3D printing brings in lighter and sturdy parts like air ducts, wall panels, structural metal components, fuel tanks, complex gear cases and covers, transmission housings, structural hinges, lightweight engine parts and more.
- Reduces assembly time and possible failure points
- Helps in creating complex, smart design geometries that deliver maximum design performance. Materials like titanium are flexible in creating feasible geometries where designers can enjoy creative freedom without compromising manufacturing limitations.
- As 3D printing uses only digital files customized for specific designs, any hurdles in the supply chain of on-demand aero parts and inventory are significantly reduced. Facilities can be set up near important air bases thus reducing transportation costs and time.
- Shorter production cycles and simplified processes leading to lower costs. For example, engine, turbine parts, cab interior components that have defined aerodynamic properties can be produced much faster than traditional marketing. Interestingly, a study by Deloitte found that additive manufacturing reduces time-to-market by 64%.
- Reduced fuel consumption leading to lesser environment impact. For example, an average airplane without including passengers and fuel weighs 90,000 pounds. With the parts produced through 3D printing, the aircraft weighs up to 55 percent less and also reduces the material by 90 percent.
- Some specific aerospace part raw materials may be expensive, resulting in huge wastes, higher costs and more recycling operations. But in 3D printing, the process is simple and contributes to very less material wastage.
One of the popular American aerospace companies managed to reduce the buy-to-fly ratio (weight of the raw material purchased compared to the end product’s weight) of their bleed air leak detector brackets from 33:1 to about 1:1 using electron beam melting. The cost of each bracket was cut to nearly 50%.
- Maintenance, repair and overhaul of aircraft (MRO) is one of the critical functions. 3D printing can be used to repair turbine blades and other high-end equipment.
Aerospace areas where 3D printing is used
Surrogates are placeholder parts used for production assemblies on the production floor and in the training room. 3D printed surrogates can serve to be low-cost replacements for higher valuable parts. For instance, fused deposition modelling (FDM) surrogates, conduits could be used as alternative to cast aluminium parts.
Brackets are simple parts that hold together structures in an assembly. Brackets determine the strength and integrity of the structures. 3D printed brackets are helping in optimizing the designs, saving time, costs and manpower. Some brackets are made from multiple pieces, and expensive materials. With 3D printing, brackets can be designed and created as a consolidated, strong, single part, eliminating the need of a time-consuming assembly process. Also, 3D printing generates less material wastage, saving weight and improving the performance.
Grips, Jigs and fixtures:
Grips, jigs, and fixtures, typically made from steel and aluminium materials using CNC, require high customization and accuracy levels, which may result in higher labour costs. Whereas by 3D printing, these are done with little to no human interference significantly reducing the costs by 60%.
Prototypes help designers understand the model better before the actual production commences. In the aerospace industry, prototypes are helping in getting the desired form, fit and functionality.
Overall, 3D printing is evolving in the aerospace industry with numerous benefits and ground-breaking and fast-paced innovations without expensive tooling costs. There could be more companies investing in the technology in the coming years, and we believe additive manufacturing would be the holy grail of the aeronautical field.