What's Next: Navigating Global Challenges with the Innovation Generation

Why Aviation Companies Are Finding Promise in 3D Printing

Expanding Technology Cuts Costs, Increases Efficiency in Flight

Aviation engineers are unearthing the capacity of 3D printing and finding increasingly viable uses for the technology in manufacturing aircraft parts. The technique, known also as additive manufacturing, has the capability of reducing aircraft weight, while increasing customization and overall construction efficiency.

3D printing, says Bastian Schaefer, an engineer with Airbus, can help manufacturers design plane parts that mimic structures found in the natural world. 3D-printed rivets and hinges can echo the structure of bones and skeletons to create a more sustainable and lightweight vehicle. The result: A lighter and more efficient aircraft, which cuts all-around costs.

“This technology—3D printing and new design rules—really helps us to reduce the weight, which is the biggest issue in aircraft design because it’s directly linked to greenhouse gas emissions,” Schaefer said in a 2013 TED Talk.

Less weight, less cost

A heavy aircraft uses more fuel, which not only poses detrimental effects to the environment, but also costs more money—this means higher airfare for you. The motivation to create lighter aircraft is two-fold: A more environmentally responsible vehicle, as well as a cost-saving effort.

For Boeing, 3D printing has reduced the weight of its aircraft parts in some cases by 20 percent. The cost savings from lower fuel requirements have also been significant—50 percent by some calculations, according to USAToday. Its new Dreamliner 787, the highly anticipated commercial model in the company’s fleet, currently uses 30 3D printed parts—an industry record.

Schaefer compares 3D printing to the building blocks of life. In 3D printing, carbon nanotubes are replicated and modified to create the structure of the aircraft in a way that parallels DNA—the most elemental structural component of the human body—and its replication in generating cells of the human body.

For engineers, 3D means faster with fewer parts

One way 3D printing technology creates efficiency on the assembly line is by reducing the overall number of parts needed to manufacture a particular piece of the aircraft.

Peter Sander, a technologist at Airbus, said that certain fuel tank parts are traditionally welded together out of ten separate pieces of metal. But with 3D printing, he told Voice of America, the entire pipe can be manufactured in one go, saving the company time, money, and hours of manpower.

“We are investing a lot of money in aerodynamic improvement, in material, in noise reduction, et cetera,” Axel Krein, a senior vice president at Airbus, told Voice of America. “But 3D printing is probably the area with the highest gain over time.”

Other companies are already getting hold of the trend. GE Aviation purchased two 3D printing companies in 2012—Morris Technology and Rapid Quality Manufacturing—in an effort to consolidate its additive manufacturing efforts under one roof. And since the acquisitions, the investment in additive manufacturing has grown more focused.

Just this summer, the General Electric subsidiary announced a $50 million investment in its 3D printing technology at the company’s aviation plant in Auburn, Alabama. The plant uses 3D printers to produce jet engine fuel nozzles at an output of 1,000 a year. With the new influx of cash, the company expects to be making 40,000 a year by the end of the decade.

But 3D printing, especially when it’s centered around massive manufacturing projects like aviation construction, is not without its disadvantages.

For one, the materials needed for 3D printing—like specialized composites and customized plastics—tend to be more expensive than traditional manufacturing materials, which are easier and cheaper to buy in bulk. Production speed marks another obstacle because engineers have yet to find an efficient way to cheaply employ 3D printing to effectively keep up with high-velocity assembly lines. For now, companies are using the printers to create parts, rather than entire aircraft.

But one way where the technology has already saved aircraft companies time is by shrinking the gap between product design and creation. Where traditional manufacturing has a significant time difference between design, prototyping, and manufacturing, 3D printing allows an engineer to design and manufacture in a single process.

While large-scale 3D printers can cost more than $1 million, aircraft executives hope the overall savings production costs will eventually offset the costs of the machine and its necessary parts.

This is one in a series of posts related to the event What's Next: Navigating Global Challenges with the Innovation Generation.

An Arabic translation of this article is provided here.