You know a trend transitioned from a hobbyist tool and news candy to solid production asset when aeronautics and aerospace officially start using it. Additive manufacturing (also referred to as 3D Printing) crossed that milestone some time ago for several industries. The aero field is now making additive manufacturing the way of tomorrow and as of 2017 it accounts for 17% of additive manufacturing revenue. A part that is correctly designed and treated through the virtual slicer of an AM machine will deliver the same properties as the regular processes while giving a new control on others, such as grain flow properties and microstructural refinement. We will take a look at the main uses the industry has made public.
Boeing has been using additive manufacturing in both its aircraft and space oriented products. The seven seat capsule of Boeing has several 3D printed parts to improve costs and weight. Hornet Spacecraft accounts for several SLS parts as well, while Boeing aircraft hold several hundred thousands parts, most of them used at the rear end of the planes. The Dreamliner also makes use of different additive manufacturing techniques.
The latest pride of GE turbo-engines, the LEAP, has already topped CFM sales and is officially the best selling turbo engine in the world. It features heavy use of the latest technology in materials and manufacturing. 3D printing is an integral part of the manufacturing process and parts such as the fuel nozzles are made using additive manufacturing technology. The additive manufacturing process improves greatly the durability of the parts and reduces the assembly work from 25 welds and brazes to 5. In addition, several metal parts within the turbo-engine are delivered through additive manufacturing, allowing complexity in design and smooth assembly.
Airbus’ leading parts in the additive manufacturing trend belong to a satellite: for example brackets that used to be made from titanium alloy for the Atlantic Bird 7. AM also counts for other parts in several aerospace products such as air intake and ducting components, as well as structural parts made through Electron Beam Additive Manufacturing. The firm has also been engaging with several leading companies in the additive manufacturing industry to deliver new parts and investigate the application of the technology in other areas. By 2020, we can expect an increase in 3D printing, weight savings, speed in manufacturing and assembly for Airbus commercial planes.
Since 2014, Safran has prided itself in having additive manufacturing machines and is constantly investigating the possibility of using the technology to manufacture more critical parts. A few years later, they are using the technology to improve brake resistance to general wear and tear, create auxialiary power units that require less parts and assembly and decrease the weight of components, welds and bolting in the production line. Today, Safran is investigating the certification and structural analysis of the parts created through the discipline. Once this step has been completed, and the company receives a draft of the regulations, there will be few companies left to fully incorporate 3D printed parts into their aircraft.
It is not an exaggeration to state that the aerospace industry has been revolutionized by AM, as it promises lower costs for very complex parts and a reduction in weight, while retaining maximum safety considerations at all times. The relative investment in AM machines and tools is not costly compared to the overall performance they deliver. It doesn’t mean all industries should or could jump into it: AM can be expensive and classic mass production for several parts is fine without it. But, it is a field to keep an eye on and a practice one should seriously consider understanding and mastering if the aero industry happens to be your field of work.