The Best Applications of 3D Printing in the Aerospace Industry
Updated: Jul 7
In the 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 during 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 1980’s. 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 problem Airlines face. External factors which are industry agnostic, like supply chain optimization due to decentralized production of parts in the location they are required (as opposed to centrally producing parts and shipping them around), also make additive manufacturing appealing and valuable for players in the Aerospace industry.
Here are few examples from top-notch companies using additive manufacturing and their most interesting applications made in 2019.
Boeing is experimenting with 3D printing for quite a long time. A few years ago, Boeing 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, who successfully launched its AMOS 17 satellite last August. By using additive manufacturing, Boeing was able to replace multiple parts in large assembly 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 additive manufacturing in the production of its finest jets. The new Boeing 777x is equipped with two GE9X engines, 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 has joined the race for additive manufacturing rather late, but it has managed to become one of the boldest users of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry. Two and a half years ago, Airbus installed the first titanium 3D-printed part for a serial production aircraft, and since than more complex 3D-printed components have been installed in its aircrafts.
The Airbus A350 XWB for example, contains more than 1,000 3D printed 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 3D Print 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
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 which 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 the AMF (Additive Manufacturing Facility). but this year, the vision of off-Earth manufacturing took a step forward, when NASA and Made in Space launched to the ISS a polymer recycler. The recycler will improve 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.
Additive manufacturing offers promising opportunities for the low volume production of Aerospace. 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 manufacturing.
We believe that the Aerospace industry 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 aircrafts completely furnished with 3D printed parts, but we are surely curious to see what the coming future will bring to this fast-paced innovative industry.