High-Speed Extrusion Raises the Bar for Aerospace Tooling

| The Essentium Team


Aerospace engineers are constantly pushing the envelope on aircraft design. Although the shape of a plane’s fuselage and wings haven’t changed much over the past few decades, the focus is now on squeezing every last drop of efficiency out of aircraft design to go farther, faster, and higher while consuming less fuel, producing less CO2, and reducing costs.Striving for innovation in flight increases the need for specialized tools to transform new ideas into reality. Additive manufacturing (AM) offers a fresh alternative to design, test, and create the tools needed for next-generation aircraft manufacturing and maintenance.

Today, ground support tooling represents the bulk of opportunities in the aerospace industry for AM. (Flight-ready applications for 3D printed parts are few in number, but growing, and will be discussed later in this series.) Aerospace tooling examples range from simple wheel chocks, battery covers, or paint scrapers to complex clamping fixtures used to bend sheet metal. Customers can print wrenches designed to speed wing-to-body joint assembly, or custom-fitted shields to protect an odd-shaped engine part during assembly or maintenance procedures. Essentially, just about any aerospace tool produced by traditional manufacturing methods can be replicated with AM to realize savings in time, cost, and weight.

Advantages of 3D Printed Aerospace Tooling

AM offers several advantages to aerospace manufacturers, including:

  • Rapid iteration in customized tool design/prototyping. Stop waiting weeks for molds to arrive. Progress through multiple design changes in a matter of hours for faster turnaround. Unleash creativity while maintaining control over design with in-house oversight.
  • Cost reduction. Injection molding is expensive. Once designed, the price of a 3D printed jig or fixture is the cost of materials—and there’s no minimum. Need one replacement tool? Print it without the expense of ordering a large quantity to bring the per-unit cost of a machined tool down to a reasonable price.
  • Weight reduction without sacrificing performance. Lightweight tools can be printed from polymers that match the strength of metal jigs and fixtures, and still resist damage from exposure to heat, chemicals, solvents, and fuels commonly found in the hangar.

Further, ground support tools are not subject to the same scrutiny as flight-ready components. Customers need not worry about getting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval for a control surface assembly fixture or drill jig; they are free to innovate on the hangar floor.

One aerospace tooling example that embodies all of these qualities is Essentium’s assistance to a customer in material selection and design of a custom 3D printed tool for hydraulic component replacement and installation on jet aircraft.

Hydraulics failures are not uncommon in jet aircraft given the stresses of flight and weight of the plane. In fact, they occur often enough that one major aerospace manufacturer designed a tool to assist maintenance personnel with replacing hydraulic components. Prior to the development of this 3D printed brace, the task of replacing hydraulic systems required several technicians to access the broken component and hold the new part in position for proper installation. Now, a single technician can manage the process of removing the damaged part, and then position and install the replacement component without assistance. It sounds simple, but it has a big impact on manpower requirements and turnaround, which ultimately reduces costs and keeps planes in the air.

Essentium: Your Partner for 3D Printed Aerospace Tooling Capabilities

Essentium’s team of AM engineers and materials experts work closely with our customers to develop solutions that support innovation in aerospace. Not only do we offer the tooling-related services and material expertise to integrate 3D printing into aerospace manufacturing workflows, we have the machines and filaments to get the job done.

The Essentium High Speed Extrusion (HSE) 180 3D Printing Platform is five to 15 times faster than any other extrusion printer on the market and has a build area large enough to print 85% of all jigs and fixtures in one piece. To meet the need for safety in aerospace applications, we offer a wide range of open-sourced, ESD-safe materials for electronic components, as well as high-temperature filaments, like our Essentium 9085, made with SABIC ULTEM™ 9085 resin with the required properties to meet flame/smoke/toxicity standards.

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