Aerospace Industry Embraces 3D Printing

Airbus A350 XWB - Flickr

The aerospace industry continues to look for ways to use more 3D printing technology in its manufacturing process. This technology, also known as additive manufacturing, involves building physical objects one layer at a time, using digital models and special material deposition devices. Today’s 3D printing machines have come a long way in a short time and are capable of fabricating complex components out of a variety of materials including steel, aluminum, titanium, and plastics. The technology results in lighter parts, with shorter lead times, fewer materials used during production and a significant reduction in the manufacturing process’ environmental footprint. Spares can also be produced on demand, substantially reducing the amount of inventory throughout the entire supply chain.

3D printing technology is evolving quickly, with major backing from industry players. For example, Airbus is making significant investments in additive manufacturing technologies. The company has a new additive manufacturing initiative – which creates a grouping of experts and competencies from the company’s engineering, manufacturing engineering and procurement departments. With this knowledge base, Airbus is well-positioned to define a vision, strategy and roadmap for applying 3D printing technologies.

“I can see Airbus manufacturing a ‘bionic’ aircraft based on 3D printing in the future. So, we’re taking a pragmatic, step-by-step approach,” explained Jerome Rascol, who heads this additive manufacturing initiative. 3D-printed parts already are applied in Airbus’ commercial jetliner product line – from the widebody A350 XWB to its single-aisle A320neo and the cornerstone A300/A310 Family. Approximately,  2,700 plastic parts have been produced by additive manufacturing for the A350 XWB program.

Lockheed Martin already uses over one hundred 3D printers for the creation of prototypes, tooling, and flight-ready parts. There are several reasons why Lockheed Martin prefers 3D printing over traditional manufacturing methods:

  • Greatly reduced part production times (as much as 80 percent)
  • The reduction of part weights through smart geometric designs (as much as 40 percent)
  • Proven reliability in demanding conditions

In addition to these reasons, 3D printing has the potential to make Lockheed Martin’s manufacturing even more efficient. For example, a spacecraft fuel tank made out of titanium — which is one of the hardest metals available — took Lockheed Martin 18 to 20 months to manufacture in the past. Using a huge Sciaky 3D printer with EBAM (electron beam additive manufacturing) technology, the tank can be produced in just two weeks using titanium powder inside a vacuum-atmosphere printing chamber.

According to Business Insider, GE Aviation invested $70 million in an Auburn, Alabama factory to make 3D-printed fuel nozzles for its LEAP jet engine. What used to require welding together 20 parts now requires printing just one.

“We get five times the durability. We have a lighter-weight fuel nozzle. And we frankly have a fuel nozzle that operates in an environment more effectively and more efficiently than previous fuel nozzles,” explained Greg Morris, who leads the additive manufacturing team for GE Aviation in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Additive manufacturing may represent a fraction of the overall manufacturing output in the aerospace industry at the present time. Nonetheless, aerospace industry giants are on the way to making it a substantial production element in their supply chains.

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Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Airbus A350 XWB, Flickr)

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