Additive Manufacturing: A New Paradigm for Aircraft Parts?

Could the aircraft parts you sell be manufactured on a printer?  The latest aircraft parts manufacturing technologies that are being developed are using equipment very much like laser printer to build complete aircraft parts.  The research arm of EADS (the parent company to Airbus) has begun using futuristic additive manufacturing technology to make more cost-effective and fuel-efficient aircraft parts.

The most common form of additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, works by using software that splits three-dimensional designs into extremely thin layers. The printer then emits a thin layer of powder and, working from that software, uses a laser to harden the layers into the designed shape, stacking each layer on top of the previous one.

Additive manufacturing can reduce materials costs by emitting almost no wasted materials (as opposed to the unused trimmings left over from machining a part from a solid block) and it can also permit design adjustments based on software changes (permitting easy transfer from design-to-manufacturing).

The basic technology of additive manufacturing has been in use since the 1990s. Until recently, however, its utility was largely limited to building non-functional prototypes to test out designs that would ultimately be built using traditional manufacturing techniques. While the simplest form of 3D printing still relies on plastics to create non-functional models, printers are becoming capable of using more complex materials, including various metals, to produce useful products. Some researchers have even speculated that the printers will one day be able to use human tissue, enabling them to “print” organs and obviate the need for donors. Further advances are still necessary before the machines will be optimized to achieve the necessary consistency in output necessary for more widespread use.

A handful of companies, mostly in Europe and the United States, are currently producing and selling 3D printers, while others specialize in using these techniques to manufacture customized products for consumers. Though the technology is still prohibitively expensive for most purposes, costs have been decreasing, and there are currently “desktop” size printers on the market for $10,000. For large, industrial models, however, the price approaches $1 million. Because this technology is not yet considered “cost-effective” for any major manufacturing operation, many companies using printers to manufacture end-user products are subsidized by public funds.

The EADS facility in Filton, England, for example, represents a partnership with the Centre for Additive Layer Manufacturing (CALM) at the University of Exeter. That research group is funded by the European Regional Development Fund ERDF, the South West Regional Development Agency RDA, and the University of Exeter, in addition to EADS.

The joint venture has already yielded important scientific advances. The company has used software associated with additive manufacturing to streamline landing gear components into a design that might not have been possible with traditional methods. The resulting functional pieces, which can be made out of any metal powder, have reduced the weight of the original design by about half, by cutting out excess material that cannot reasonably be eliminated when using other manufacturing processes.

Airbus is currently experimenting with a few other types of small parts made through this process. The research team in Filton has already identified about 1,000 aircraft parts that could be made using additive manufacturing. Ultimately, Dan Johns, an EADS executive who runs the CALM project, hopes to bring the technology to a larger scale that will eventually enable companies to “print” full aircraft wings.

These lighter-weight components, once they are broadly incorporated, will save money not only on materials but also will save fuel costs for operators. By some estimates, reducing the weight of an aircraft by only one pound can save the airline over $50,000 in fuel over the course of the aircraft’s estimated 30-year life span. As a result. several companies, including Bentley, Boeing, Delphi, MTT, and Virgin Atlantic, are funding an additional research operation focused on implementing additive manufacturing at Loughborough University in England.

This technology also has the potential to permit manufacturers to better serve customer needs by making it possible to produce parts “on-demand” from a manufacturing software library.

Although the profitability for individual parts manufacturers to start buying 3D printers for production purposes is still in question, companies should pay close attention to developments as it becomes increasingly clear that additive manufacturing could play a role in the future of the aviation industry.


About Jason Dickstein
Mr. Dickstein is the President of the Washington Aviation Group, a Washington, DC-based aviation law firm. He represents several aviation trade associations, including the Aviation Suppliers Association, the Aircraft Electronics Association, the Air Carrier Purchasing Conference, and the Modification and Replacement Parts Association. He also represents private clients drawn from the spectrum of the aviation industry.

One Response to Additive Manufacturing: A New Paradigm for Aircraft Parts?

  1. Pingback: Aircraft parts manufactured on a 3D Printer | 3D Printing is the Future

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