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3D Printing Aerospace: Prototyping and Tooling

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
August 18, 2023
 8 min read
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The aerospace industry rides the forefront of technological innovation. It is always looking for new approaches to increase productivity, minimize expenses, and boost overall performance. Particularly in the fields of prototyping and tooling, 3D printing has begun to revolutionize the aerospace manufacturing industry in recent years. Aerospace companies can now quickly produce intricate prototypes and high-quality customized tools with short lead times by utilizing the capabilities of additive manufacturing.

Before moving forward with large-scale production, engineers and designers must go through the crucial stages of prototyping and tooling. These phases allow them to test new ideas, validate existing ones, and improve designs. Complex geometries, lightweight constructions, and functional prototypes that closely resemble the finished product can all be 3D printed. The technology also enables the production of specialized tools for manufacturing, maintenance, and repair processes. 

In this article, we'll examine the significant contribution that 3D printing has made to aerospace prototyping and tooling, highlighting its advantages and uses.

What Is Prototyping and Tooling in the Aerospace Industry?

Prototyping and tooling play a crucial role in the development and production of aircraft and spacecraft. Prototyping refers to the creation of physical models or replicas that represent a design concept or a specific part/component of an aircraft. These prototypes are used to evaluate and validate the functionality, form, fit, and performance of the design before it goes into production. 3D printing makes the whole process more efficient. It allows for the production of complex geometries and intricate details that would be challenging or impossible to achieve using traditional manufacturing methods. This enables engineers and designers to quickly iterate and refine their designs, reducing development time and costs.

Tooling, on the other hand, is the production of specialized equipment, fixtures, molds, and jigs that are necessary for manufacturing, assembly, and maintenance processes. When it comes to the aerospace industry, these tools ensure precision, accuracy, and repeatability in the production of aircraft components. 3D printers let you produce lightweight and complex tooling solutions and reduce costs and lead times compared to traditional machining methods. You can now make customized tools based on specific requirements and produce low-volume or one-off tools more economically.

How Long Has Aerospace Used 3D Printing for Prototyping and Tooling?

The aerospace industry has used 3D printing for tooling and prototypes since 1989. This early industry adoption demonstrates a dedication to innovation and cutting-edge technology. That commitment has only grown. Aerospace organizations accounted for 16% of additive manufacturing’s $4.9 billion in global sales in 2015. This evidence emphasizes the widespread and ongoing use of 3D printing, firmly establishing its place as a vital tool for prototyping and tooling in this sector.

How Has 3D Printing Affected Aerospace Prototyping and Tooling?

3D printing can significantly accelerate the design and manufacturing process, allowing for rapid iteration and customization of parts. Additionally, 3D printing enables the creation of complex geometries and intricate internal structures that are difficult or impossible to produce using conventional techniques. This enhances the performance and efficiency of aerospace components. Compared to traditional manufacturing methods such as machining or casting, 3D printing gives you greater design freedom, wastes less material, and lowers tooling costs. It has revolutionized the prototyping and tooling processes, leading to more efficient production and improved product development.

To read more, see our guide on 3D Printing Aerospace Parts.

Which 3D Printing Materials Are Utilized for Aerospace Prototyping and Tooling?

The following 3D printing materials are used for prototyping and tooling in the aerospace industry: 

1. Nylon

Nylon, or more specifically, Nylon 12, is a common material in aerospace applications due to its excellent mechanical properties and high strength-to-weight ratio. It offers good chemical resistance, durability, and thermal stability.

Nylon 12 is used in parts like brackets, clips, and housings that must be both strong and lightweight. Its ability to withstand high temperatures and its resistance to impact and fatigue make it ideal for aerospace applications. Additionally, Nylon 12 has good dimensional stability, ensuring accurate and consistent parts during the printing process. 3D-printed nylon prototypes and tools are both durable and reliable, contributing to the industry's ongoing advancements in manufacturing techniques.

To learn more, check out our guide on Nylon Plastic Material.

2. Titanium

Titanium is resilient in the face of very high temperatures and corrosive environments. These capabilities make it a good material for the interfaces between metal and carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer (CFRP) parts. Titanium material is employed in various applications, including: fastening elements, airframes, and landing gear. Its low density and high strength make it desirable for aero-engine manufacturers as well. 

Titanium’s high-temperature performance is crucial for jet engines and airframe components. Parts such as: blades, casings, discs, and shafts can be manufactured using titanium. The use of titanium in both prototyping and tooling contributes to enhanced performance and durability in aerospace applications.

3. Inconel®

The popular alloy, Inconel®, is especially valuable in applications involving extremely high temperatures like those present in jet engines. When subjected to high heat, Inconel® forms a protective oxide layer that further enhances its heat resistance. These alloys also have exceptional resistance to corrosion, oxidation, and pressure. The aerospace industry heavily relies on Inconel® for many high-performance mechanical parts. Flame holders, gas turbine rotors, seals, afterburner parts, and blades are just a few of the aerospace components made from Inconel® alloys.

To learn more, read our guide on Inconel Metal.

4. Polycarbonate (PC)

Polycarbonate is favored by aerospace experts for use in backlit instrument panels and protective wire and cable casings in airplanes. Polycarbonate’s flame and impact resistance also makes it a safe choice for prototype components that will be subjected to high heat and potentially hazardous environments. In the realm of tooling, polycarbonate material is employed to produce jigs and fixtures used in aerospace manufacturing processes. 

What Are the Advantages of 3D Printing for Prototyping in the Aerospace Industry?

3D printing offers several advantages for prototyping in the aerospace industry, including:

  1. Faster Iteration: 3D printing allows for rapid prototyping, significantly reducing the time required to produce physical prototypes. Design iterations can be quickly implemented, accelerating the development process.
  2. Cost Efficiency: Traditional manufacturing methods for prototypes often involve expensive tooling and setup costs. With 3D printing, complex geometries can be produced without specialized tooling, resulting in cost savings.
  3. Design Freedom: 3D printing enables you to create complex and intricate designs that may be difficult or impossible to achieve using traditional manufacturing methods. This design freedom means you can explore innovative concepts and optimized designs.
  4. Customization and Personalization: Aerospace prototypes often require customization based on specific requirements or individual preferences. 3D printing makes those projects simpler, so you can produce personalized components or modifications to existing designs.
  5. Less Material Waste: Traditional subtractive manufacturing processes generate lots of material waste. 3D printing, on the other hand, is an additive process. Material is added only where it’s needed, so very little must be discarded after production. 
  6. Lightweight: A significant advantage of 3D printing in aerospace prototyping is its ability to produce lightweight components without compromising strength. 3D-printed parts and tools can be 50% lighter than their traditionally produced counterparts but still maintain the same strength and structural integrity. 

What Are the Challenges of 3D Printing for Prototyping in the Aerospace Industry?

There are several challenges associated with prototyping via 3D printing in the aerospace industry:

  1. High Cost of Raw Materials: Aerospace-grade materials intended for 3D printing can be expensive, driving up the overall cost of prototyping. This can make it challenging to achieve cost-effective production, especially for large or complex components.
  2. Limited Build Volumes: Every 3D printer has its own build volume limitations which can restrict the size of prototypes it can produce. Large-scale aerospace components may require specialized equipment or the assembly of multiple smaller parts.
  3. Post-Processing Requirements: 3D-printed prototypes often require post-processing steps such as sanding, polishing, or painting to achieve the proper surface finish. These additional steps can increase the time and cost of prototyping.
  4. Design Limitations: Certain design constraints such as overhangs, support structures, and build orientation may impact the feasibility and accuracy of 3D-printed prototypes. You must optimize your designs for printing to overcome these limitations.
  5. Low working speed: 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process that builds objects layer by layer. It can be time-consuming, especially for large and complex components. The printing speed is influenced by factors such as the complexity of the design, layer height, and the style of the printer. 


This article presented aerospace prototyping and tooling with 3D printing, explained what it is, and discussed its various applications. To learn more about 3D printing in aerospace, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including 3D prinitng and other value-added services for all of your prototyping and production needs. Visit our website to learn more or to request a free, no-obligation quote.

  1. Inconel® is a registered trademark of Special Metals Corporation.


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Xomety X
Team Xometry
This article was written by various Xometry contributors. Xometry is a leading resource on manufacturing with CNC machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, injection molding, urethane casting, and more.