The Best Applications of 3D Printing in the Aerospace Industry
Updated: Mar 27
Inthe last article of our "Best AM applications" series, we explored the “Best Applications of 3D Printing in the Automotive Industry”. This time we hand-picked some of the most interesting applications of additive manufacturing in the Aerospace Industry from last year.
The Aerospace 3D printing market is projected to grow beyond $3 billion by 2022, mainly due to the growing demand for lightweight 3D printed parts for aircraft engines.
(Source: Markets and Markets report)
Generally speaking, the Aerospace industry was one of the earliest adopters of 3D printing technology with initial use recorded back in the late 1980s. Nowadays it is still considered the industry which has the highest rate of adoption of 3D printing technologies.
Factors like quicker delivery of finished parts, relatively low production quantities, and the ability to Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM). The latter is especially crucial for producing lighter parts while maintaining strength, addressing challenges like reducing an aircraft’s fuel consumption by reducing its overall weight, thus cutting operational costs and lowering carbon dioxide emissions - two major problems Airlines face. External factors which are industry agnostic, like supply chain optimization due to decentralized production of parts in the location they are required using an in-house 3d printer machine (as opposed to centrally producing parts and shipping them around), also make AM appealing and valuable for players in the Aerospace sector.
Here are a few examples from top-notch companies using AM and their most interesting applications made in 2019.
Boeing - An early aerospace adopter of 3d printing manufacturing
Boeing is experimenting with 3D printing for quite a long time. A few years ago, the company has turned to 3D printing for satellite production and in 2019 it created the first 3D-printed metal satellite antenna. The antenna was built for the Israeli company, Spacecom, which successfully launched its AMOS 17 satellite last August. By using additive manufacturing, Boeing was able to replace multiple parts in large assemblies with a single 3D printed part, reducing the weight of the antenna and the time it takes to produce it.
Boeing is also benefiting from AM in the production of its finest jets. The new Boeing 777x is equipped with two GE9X engines, the world’s largest jet engines by GE Aviation. Besides GE’s fuel nozzle, the engine Incorporating more than 300 printed parts enabled the reduction of the engine’s weight and make Boeing 777x the most efficient twin-engine jet in the world, with fuel consumption lowered by 12 percent and operating costs lowered by 10 percent.
GE9X engine. Credit: GE Aviation
Boeing 777x's first flight was successfully executed on January 25th, 2020, and the new set of airplanes is planned to start service in 2021.
Airbus - applications of additive manufacturing
Airbus joined the race for additive manufacturing rather late, but it has managed to become one of the boldest users of AM in the aerospace sector. Two and a half years ago, Airbus installed the first titanium 3D-printed part for a serial production aircraft, and since then more complex 3D-printed components have been installed in its aircraft.
The Airbus A350 XWB for example, contains more than 1,000 additively manufactured parts, and Airbus has now partnered with Swiss OEM Liebherr-Aerospace to supply more serial-produced 3D-printed parts for it, including a printed nose landing. In addition, Airbus signed a contract with Premium Aerotec to serially produce metal and composite parts that will turn into the Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymer door
Next in Airbus’s plans is to use 3D Printing for Drones and Self-Driving Cars. Neorizon, Airbus’s new joint venture with Local Motors Industries, a 3D-printing start-up in San Francisco, is dedicated to building mobility and autonomy solutions. They are currently developing two different types of electrical vertical take-off and landing vehicles (eVTOL), which are basically taxi drones designed to be fully autonomous and emission-free.
Airbus eVTOL, "CityAirbus". Credit: Airbus
NASA & Made In Space - 3d printing in space industry
With 7,000 pounds of spare parts sent to the International Space Station (ISS) every year, NASA is trying to lighten the load and reduce costs with the use of 3D printing. In partnership with Made in Space, NASA has 3D-printed polymer parts like a fixture to hold an airflow monitor, a sensor cover for radiation monitors, and a tow hitch that links two free-flying satellites in the ISS environment.
NASA and Made in Space are already experienced with 3D printing in zero gravity technology with their AMF (Additive Manufacturing Facility). but this year, the vision of off-Earth manufacturing took a step forward, when NASA and Made in Space launched the ISS a polymer recycler. The recycler will improve the sustainability of long-duration space missions by processing raw materials like polyethylene and converting plastic packaging and trash into usable 3D printing feedstock for 3D printing.
And, there’s more to expect – the two companies recently signed a contract of $73.7 million value, to 3D print to develop orbital 3D printing. Archinaut is the first platform designed to manufacture large structures for space, in space. The plan is to print ten-meter solar wings onboard the Archinaut One and launch it by 2022.
Final words - The benefits of 3d printing for the aerospace industry
Additive manufacturing offers promising opportunities for the low-volume production of Aerospace. It simplifies on-demand manufacturing processes, reduces lead time, and saves costs. What used to be a new technology primarily for prototyping, is today being leveraged and used as a full-scale tool for end-use parts.
We believe that the Aerospace sector will continue to benefit from additive manufacturing by using processes like generative design and topology optimization for weight reduction - the holy grail of aeronautical engineering and one of the biggest challenges in this industry.
We don’t exactly know when will we be able to see aircraft completely furnished with additively manufactured parts, but we are surely curious to see what the coming future will bring to this fast-paced innovative industry.