3D Printing and Aerospace: The Sky is the Limit
High-Speed Extrusion Raises the Bar for Aerospace Tooling
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.
Additive Manufacturing’s Role in Aerospace
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 Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace 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 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.
Advantages & Examples of 3D Printing in the Aircraft Industry
As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, commercial air travel is expected to increase rapidly. Demand indicates an order of nearly 38,000 new aircrafts will be built over the next 20 years. As a result, equipment manufacturers, designers, and suppliers need to find cost-effective solutions to quickly and efficiently produce these aircraft.1
At the same time, we are now seeing aircraft in service for decades longer than originally intended. This is no surprise, given the size and scope of the investment in an aircraft, and the quality with which it is made. Because of this, a commercial airline or military command may acquire an asset that is 20 or more years old. Examples of planes flying for 50 or 60 years are not uncommon. In those instances, many of the subcontractors that made parts for the plane are no longer in business, or original replacement parts are no longer being manufactured. Essentium believes the most cost-effective solution is 3D printing Aerospace parts.
Best Materials for Flight-Ready Aerospace Applications
We know that 3D printing enables faster manufacturing of machine components and spare parts. It supports rapid prototype design and iteration and allows for parts to be made in any quantity and shape without excessive material waste. But AM's biggest draw for aerospace is its ability to produce aircraft parts with equal strength as components manufactured using traditional methods and materials at about half the weight.
Weight reduction or lightweighting is the holy grail of aerospace, allowing planes to fly farther and faster on less fuel. In fact, fuel consumption is reduced by about 1% for every 1,000-pound reduction in aircraft weight2, with an associated drop in carbon dioxide production.
To date, AM has had the most impact on Aerospace applications, such as in ground support tooling and non-load-bearing cosmetic parts like interior cabin panels, knobs, and covers. However, the development of advanced filaments reinforced with glass, metal, or carbon fibers that match the strength and temperature resistance of aluminum parts yet are up to 50% lighter is opening new, flight-critical possibilities for AM on aircraft.
1The Impact of 3D Printing on the Aerospace Sector, Aerospace and Defense Review, 7/13/20
2Fuel Economy as Function of Weight and Distance - ZHAW, https://digitalcollection.zhaw.ch/, by R Steinegger