The aerospace industry has witnessed many changes in technologies aimed at light products, high quality products, reduced cycle times and the reduction of bottlenecks in the supply chain. 3D printing has been at the forefront of these promising technologies. The two main advantages being finance and applications. The process also has ecological attributes and effectively solves the complexity of supply chain but that’s for another day.
PART 1 – FINANCIAL BENEFIT
Although the initial investment in additive manufacturing systems is a major cost driver, manufacturers can more than make up for the initial investment thanks to the increased productivity of additive manufacturing processes. So, what benefits financial benefits are we talking about?
Reduced Part Counts
Mechanical and electrical designers normally think about their designs in terms of the limitations of available mass manufacturing processes. Designs with complex topologies might not be feasible for manufacturing on a mass-scale unless they are broken out into several smaller pieces. In contrast, additive manufacturing is not constrained by the traditional geometries offered by subtractive manufacturing. Components can be fabricated with little to no required assembly, reducing the number of parts needed and enabling new assemblies and optimized designs.
Ease of Workability and Reduced Waste
Some exotic metals form the cornerstone of many aerospace applications. These materials are difficult to work with in traditional manufacturing. However, these materials are beginning to be incorporated into additive manufacturing systems.
The additive nature of 3D printing also significantly reduces waste compared to traditional subtractive processes. Although materials used in additive processes are more expensive, the reduced material waste more than compensates for the material costs. As more material suppliers and a broader range of materials start becoming available on the market, costs are expected to decrease further while additive manufacturing applications increase going into the future.
Quick Replacement of Complex Parts
Every aircraft requires some maintenance, including replacement of mechanical and electronic components. While some replacement parts for aircraft are readily available and should be kept in stock, more complex electronic and mechanical components are not always kept in inventory and need to be periodically replaced. Ordering these parts from a traditional manufacturer can carry lead times that range from weeks to months. If you’re lucky, a manufacturer or distributor might have these parts in inventory, but this isn’t always the case.
Controlling Prototyping and Manufacturing Costs
As additively manufactured systems require fewer parts, fasteners, and assembly steps, they can be produced faster and at a lower cost than traditionally manufactured systems. The reduced number of assembly steps is especially important for multi-layer PCBs. Traditionally manufactured multilayer PCBs require dozens of fabrication and assembly steps. Using an additive manufacturing system for multi-layer PCBs effectively reduces fabrication down to a single layer-by-layer printing process.
Given the current trend and upcoming developments in 3D Printing the Global Aerospace Defense 3D Printing Market, 2019-2025 is estimated at around USD 1.56 billion and is expected to grow to USD 5.9 billion by 2025 at a CAGR of around 24.82%.
PART 2 – APPLICATIONS
The Aerospace industry recognised the unique abilities of 3D printing to intricate objects of complex geometry, shape, contour and molds with cavities due to which it was one of the early adopters of this technology and still continues to contribute heavily to its development. Some aerospace companies began using this technology as early as 1989. This became possible only because 3D printing was implementable at all stages of manufacturing.
It begins with conceptualising a design for a component and building a 3D Model of the same. Additive Manufacturing has made it possible for these models to be printed with attention to detail.
The second stage would involve printing a full scale prototype. Be it a landing gear enclosure printed rapidly with low-cost FDM, or a high-detail, full-color control board concept model, there is a 3D printing process suited to every prototyping need.
This stage is where the Aerospace Industry benefitted the most. Additive Manufacturing allows for tooling to be quickly manufactured at a low cost and then used to produce low to medium runs of parts.
Additive Manufacturing so far was limited to prototyping due to the sheer production volumes of parts. However, with improvements in the size of industrial printers, the speed they are able to print at and the materials that are available, 3D printing is taking over medium-sized production runs, particularly for high-end interior build-outs.
With Additive Manufacturing parts can now be tailored to a specific aircraft (custom, lightweight bracketry) or type of aircraft (cargo, passenger or even helicopter). 3D printing also provides part consolidation and topology optimization of many custom aerospace components.
Common parts manufactured using Additive Manufacturing in aerospace industry are Jigs & Fixtures, Surrogates (placeholder parts used throughout production that represent components that are later installed in final assemblies), mounting brackets and so on.
With further development and innovation, the Aerospace Industry is not far from the day when aircrafts and satellites could be completely 3D printed on a mass scale. Speaking of development and innovation, AMTech Expo 2019 is a great place to explore the new innovations in Additive Manufacturing. For details on the expo, click here.