Additive Manufacturing’s Role in Aerospace

| The Essentium Team


AM will never completely replace conventional manufacturing in aerospace and it shouldn’t. There are just some parts that cannot be 3D printed; some materials that cannot substitute for titanium and steel. That does not mean there isn’t a role for 3D printing in aerospace. Rather, Essentium, Inc.® believes AM should be viewed as a complement to conventional aerospace manufacturing methods.
The aerospace industry was one of the first adopters of AM technology. Design engineers are constantly searching for ways to make aircraft lighter, faster, and more fuel-efficient. They recognized early on that 3D printing in aerospace saves time and money in design, greatly contributes to weight reduction, and it allows complex parts and tools to be created in one piece. Further, AM supports aviation innovation through the ability to fail faster.

Additive vs. Conventional Manufacturing

In aerospace, knowing what won’t work is equally important as knowing what will work because there is no margin for failure. Everything must perform flawlessly. Using the time-tested methods of subtractive manufacturing, engineers know what they’re going to get. Still, progressing through the many steps and iterations of mold production during prototype design remains a long and expensive process.

AM removes many design constraints, allowing complex geometries to be printed as a seamless part. Improvements in materials enable the printing of stronger yet lighter parts and tools. Advancements like Essentium’s High-Speed Extrusion (HSE) technology allow manufacturers to quickly iterate on design to test against various stresses for failure points. If a flaw is detected or a design change is needed during printing, they can press Cancel, input the new file, and press Print again. No need to wait weeks for a faulty mold to arrive before discovering problems. Though challenges such as the arduous process of certifying filaments and testing 3D printed part performance to FAA or Department of Defense (DoD) standards remain, the speed with which engineers achieve final design can be compressed from months to days.

Current Status of AM in Aerospace

Today, most of the applications best suited for AM in aerospace involve the production of jigs and fixtures for ground support tooling and aircraft maintenance. In-flight use cases for 3D printed parts are still few in number, as the stresses of flight are great and the industry is still in the early stages of developing certifications for flight-critical 3D printed parts. Currently, 3D printing is limited to non-critical, non-load-bearing aircraft parts such as cup holders, lavatory lids, air ducts, and customized interior panels. However, one aerospace application for which AM is uniquely suited is the recreation of broken parts and tools. Perhaps the frame of an instrument panel cracked, or a handle on a control surface lever broke. When a critical replacement part cannot be sourced through typical supply chains, 3D printing allows for reverse engineering; the original part can be CAD-scanned and a new one printed in a just few hours. Staving off obsolescence is one of the biggest drivers for AM in aerospace, and will be discussed further in Part Three of this series.

The Future of Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace

Going forward, Essentium believes a blended approach will yield the best results for the aerospace community. Using AM in concert with conventional manufacturing methods will allow designers to quickly and more affordably create and test next-generation aerospace concepts.

Drawn by the promise of weight minimization, the ability to condense multiple parts with complex geometries into a single printed piece to reduce assembly steps, and new applications like lightweight autonomous flying drones, Essentium sees a growing list of opportunities for load-bearing 3D printed parts. As designers become more comfortable with AM technology and governing agencies create the necessary certification standards for 3D printed parts, expect everything from aircraft door latches to drone blades and engine components to transition to AM.

The key to AM adoption in aerospace will be the development of next-generation materials that can handle the stresses of flight. Essentium is known for its expertise in material science and chemistry and has a portfolio of high-temperature, fiber-reinforced, and ESD-safe filaments on the market or in development. Optimized for aerospace applications, Essentium materials deliver the strength of steel at a fraction of the weight and cost, while meeting industry flame/smoke/toxicity requirements for in-flight use.

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