Advantages & Examples of 3D Printing for Aerospace Applications

| The Essentium Team

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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. If the plans for a needed fixture are lost, a specialized tool breaks, or the material used to make the original part is found to release carcinogenic particles during machining, the entire aircraft can be out of service.

Further, the aerospace industry is famous for its shorter lifespan of parts and tools given the stresses of flight. Things fail, break, and wear out quickly, making fast replacement and/or modification critical. This opens the door for AM as a tool for supporting both new and old aircraft with advantages including:

  • Freedom to Innovate. Quickly design and print the prototypes and parts to build and test tomorrow’s aerospace innovations. A tool-less technology, AM can easily produce or modify customized parts and tools for new models and customers without the time and expense of making molds.
  • Cure for Obsolescence. For older aircraft, 3D printing allows for reverse engineering; an original part can be CAD-scanned and a new one printed with precision in a just few hours to keep aging aircraft operational. Eliminate the need to inventory rarely-used items; simply produce parts as needed.
  • Lightweighting. Weight reduction without sacrificing strength is the ultimate objective for AM in aerospace. 3D printed parts and tools can be 50% or more lighter yet just as strong as their equivalents produced using traditional methods and materials. Any improvement that reduces weight is welcome, as it contributes to fuel efficiency and reduced CO2.
  • No Minimums; Maximum Flexibility. Whether you need one or one hundred components, the only cost is the price of filament. 3D printing removes quantity from the equation. Print something different every day; just load the desired material and digital file to produce complex, lightweight structures in one piece. 3D printing can produce thousands of different aircraft parts and tools without time-consuming tooling changes.

3D Printing Aerospace Applications

For these reasons and others, the aerospace industry was one of the earliest adopters of 3D printing technology. Today, there are many high-profile examples of 3D printed parts in aerospace, and also extra-orbital space. For instance, components such as lightweight jet engine parts, brackets for airplane wings, lightweight rotor blades and engine components for autonomous drones, and even metal satellite antennas for spacecraft are all utilizing 3D printing. Clearly, the sky (and beyond) is the limit for AM in aerospace.

Today, the vast majority of opportunities for 3D printing in aerospace relate to ground support tooling. However, these examples point to an expanding role for AM in load-bearing, flight-critical parts. Expect the list to grow as new high-strength extrusion materials become available that can withstand the high temperatures and exposure to corrosive agents common to aerospace environments. In Part Four of this series, we’ll talk more about some of the best extrusion materials for in-flight aerospace applications.

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