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Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace

Since additive manufacturing’s inception in the 1980s, it has become more and more entrenched in the world of manufacturing. One of the areas where it’s had the biggest impact is in the aerospace industry. That’s because additive manufacturing in aerospace allows for production of lighter, more durable and more efficient designs.

Let’s look at why that is.

Unlike traditional subtractive manufacturing that involves cutting away at a block of material to come up with the desired object, additive manufacturing is the process of creating an object by stacking ultrathin layers of materials on top of one another.[1] This results in a number of benefits: less waste, more strength, lighter weight, faster production and lower costs — benefits that are understandably attractive to manufacturers of military and civilian aircraft, spacecrafts and rockets, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVS) and jet engines.

Let’s take a look at the issue of waste. With on-site 3D printers, suppliers can create highly customized aircraft parts with much less waste of time and resources, which has tremendous implications for the environment. The process of 3D printing utilizes resources very efficiently, using only the material needed for a particular part. This contrasts with traditional manufacturing, in which even the leanest of facilities creates waste in the form of leftover materials. Because 3D-printed components are designed from scratch and material is added only where needed, nothing goes unused.

Strength is another benefit of additive manufacturing in aerospace. In subtractive manufacturing, certain materials — such as metal — may become weaker when hollowed or thinned out, or have vulnerable connection points where two separate components were joined together. In contrast, additive manufacturing allows for one solid piece that is stronger as a whole.[2]

Now let’s look at the issue of weight. Additive manufacturing allows for use of a wider range of materials and designs, which can in turn reduce weight of different parts. Reduced weight can lead to lower costs that trickle down the supply chain, as well as lower fuel usage that will help the environment.[3]

Another benefit of additive manufacturing is that it saves time. In 2016, Boeing — in conjunction with Oak Ridge National Laboratory — set a Guinness World Record for creating the largest single-piece, solid object with additive manufacturing. The piece, a 777x wing trim tool used to create the wings of the next generation of 777 planes, was “printed” in a mere 30 hours — a vast improvement over the three-month average it takes to create the wing trim tool using traditional manufacturing methods. The significant amount of production time that manufacturers can save by using additive manufacturing in aerospace has massive implications for an industry that has tight timelines and has been plagued, in recent years, by fallout from manufacturing delays.[4]

Finally, let’s take a look at costs. As mentioned earlier, the reduced weight of additive manufactured parts can create lower costs that trickle down the supply chain. In addition, the technology allows manufacturers to consolidate parts, which may reduce supply sources and logistical costs.[5]

Discover the benefits of additive manufacturing in aerospace firsthand at AeroDef Manufacturing 2020, March 16-19 at the Fort Worth Convention Center.