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3D printed jet engine. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/asharkyu

3D Printing Aerospace Structural Components

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
September 1, 2023
 11 min read
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With the advent of 3D printing technology, the aerospace industry is starting a revolutionary journey, especially in the field of structural components. 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has emerged as a game-changing technique for creating intricate and custom-made parts. 

3D printing can produce lightweight yet durable components, maximizing performance and fuel efficiency while adhering to strict safety standards. To understand the full potential of this groundbreaking technology, it is helpful to examine the fundamentals of 3D printing and how they apply to aerospace manufacturing requirements.

This article will explore the complexities of 3D printing and how it is transforming the future of structural component fabrication in the aerospace sector. 

What Is the Purpose of 3D Printing of Aerospace Structural Components?

The main goal of 3D printing for structural aerospace components is to create parts in a way that is both commercially viable and strictly complies with applicable safety and environmental standards as well as aircraft safety rules. Producing intricate, lightweight parts and custom-made components that improve the performance of both airplanes and spacecraft helps to attain this goal. Intricate geometries that were previously difficult or impossible to produce using conventional methods can now be produced using 3D printing. The aerospace industry has chances for innovation thanks to 3D printing. This useful technique can save fuel use while reducing component weight.

Which Aerospace Structural Components Can Be 3D Printed?

Aerospace structural components that can be 3D printed include:

  1. Fuel nozzles.
  2. Turbine blades.
  3. Unmanned aerial vehicles.
  4. Satellite Frames.

How Does 3D Printing of Aerospace Structural Components Work?

Aerospace structural parts are 3D printed using digital designs that are turned into real objects by depositing a desired material layer by layer to build up the part. A computer-aided design (CAD) software-produced 3D model serves as the foundation of the process. To create the component, the 3D printer interprets the design and places materials—such as metals or composites—selectively onto the build platform. Layer by layer, the process continues until the last layer is finished. In addition to enabling complex geometries, reducing material waste, and producing lightweight components with improved performance, 3D printing offers the engineer more design freedom than other fabrication methods.

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

The advantages of 3D printing in the aerospace industry are listed below:

  1. Allows for the consolidation of multiple labor-intensive parts into a single component. It streamlines the manufacturing process and reduces assembly time and potential failure points. The technology also enables the creation of complex designs that are not feasible with traditional methods. The digital nature of 3D printing allows for quick and simple design changes without requiring major tooling adjustments.
  2. Enables on-demand production anywhere in the world, reducing time-to-market and supply chain costs. This approach allows defense manufacturers to produce critical parts at the source or close to vital air bases. This leads to decreased inventory costs and faster production timelines.
  3. By reducing components from multiple parts to a single 3D printed part, the supply chain becomes leaner, more reliable, and more consistent. The elimination of traditional manufacturing processes like casting and machining cuts shipping costs and lead times.

What Are the Disadvantages of 3D Printing in the Aerospace Industry?

The disadvantages of 3D printing in the aerospace industry include:

  1. Depending on the technology used, some 3D printed parts require additional post-processing. This phase involves additional tasks like sanding, polishing, and coating to refine 3D-printed components. While enhancing part quality, post-processing increases production time and costs. Consequently, the need for extensive post-processing detracts from the immediate benefits of streamlined manufacturing.
  2. The range of components that can be produced in 3D printing is constrained by the lack of suitable materials. Aviation-specific regulations necessitate specialized materials that adhere to predetermined criteria. As a result, the aviation industry has a limited number of material options. This limits the technology's ability to create a wider range of aircraft parts.
  3. While increasing efficiency, 3D printing-driven automation may result in less need for manual labor. As a result, competent laborers may lose their jobs, highlighting the delicate balance between technological innovation and maintaining job prospects.

What Are Examples of 3D-Printed Aerospace Structural Component Application?

There have been many applications of 3D-printed structural components in the aerospace industry. Wing brackets for airplanes, drone rotor blades, fuel nozzles, combustion chambers, and even parts of the engine's internal structure are a few examples. These uses highlight the adaptability and potential of additive manufacturing in the aerospace sector. It further illustrates how 3D printing continues to reshape the sector's manufacturing processes with its endless possibilities.

What Materials Are Used in the 3D Printing of Aerospace Structural Components?

Some of the materials used in the 3D printing of aerospace structural components include:

1. Titanium Alloys

Titanium is a great choice for structural components in the aerospace industry due to its exceptional strength-to-weight ratio and resistance to corrosion. Its use in 3D printing makes it possible to produce strong, lightweight parts that are ideal for spacecraft and aircraft. This improves performance and fuel efficiency while ensuring reliability and safety in demanding environments. Compared to the use of aluminum, which provides cost-effective corrosion resistance, titanium offers a higher strength-to-weight ratio. However, titanium comes at a significantly higher cost than aluminum. 

2. Aluminum Alloys

Aluminum's exceptional lightweight characteristics and high thermal conductivity make it an optimal material choice for a myriad of aerospace components. The use of aluminum alloys in 3D printing enables the fabrication of intricate geometries and customized parts, resulting in a significant boost to overall performance, efficiency, and design flexibility. Intricate geometries might include: components with complex lattice structures, internal channels for cooling or fluid flow, or organic shapes that are specifically designed to enhance aerodynamics or functionality. 

3. Nickel Alloys

Nickel alloys offer superior performance at high temperatures, as well as excellent corrosion resistance. 3D-printed nickel alloy parts have attracted a lot of interest in the aerospace sector, especially for uses like: turbine blades, combustion chambers, and exhaust parts for gas turbines and aerospace engines. These materials play a crucial role in enhancing the overall efficiency and reliability of critical systems.

4. Stainless Steel

Stainless steel, a versatile family of alloys, combines strength and exceptional corrosion resistance. 3D printed parts from stainless steel produce robust, long-lasting structural components that underpin the successful operation of air and spacecraft. Stainless steel's strength is utilized in the construction of structural frames for airplanes and spacecraft, adding to the overall durability of the machines. Even the parts of the landing gear, including the struts and support structures, are made of this alloy to ably meet the demands of takeoffs and landings. This distinctive combination of attributes—resistance to corrosion, strength, and durability—sets stainless steel apart and makes it an ideal choice for critical components in the aerospace sector. Despite stainless steel's greater strength, aluminum exhibits a significantly superior strength-to-weight ratio.

5. Carbon Fiber Reinforced Polymers (CFRPs)

Carbon fiber reinforced polymers (CFRPs) are advanced materials that merge the light weight of polymers with the strength of carbon fibers. This  combination plays a significant role in the aerospace industry, as it can improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions, and enhance the overall performance of aircraft and spacecraft. CFRPs can reduce an aircraft's weight by up to 20%. The 3D printing of sandwich structures with various core shapes, using continuous carbon fibers, can be applied to a range of structural parts in aerospace and other industries. Modern airplanes use carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) sandwich structures for their elevators, rudders, and steering blades as flight control surfaces.

6. High-Performance Polymers

High-performance polymers, such as PEEK and PEKK, exhibit mechanical properties. Also, these polymers exhibit high-temperature resistance compared to many standard polymers commonly used in engineering applications such as: nylon, ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), or polyethylene. Combining discontinuous carbon fibers with the high-performance polymer PEKK results in a composite material with improved properties. This unique combination fulfills the critical function of dispersing electrostatic charge while simultaneously strengthening the material's structural integrity.

7. Ceramic Composites

Ceramic composites are renowned for their hardness and their exceptional resistance to high temperatures. Ceramic parts printed using 3D technology hold potential for the aerospace sector, but strict safety requirements make certification time-consuming. High customization costs and a lack of cost-effectiveness in comparison to traditional methods present problems, especially for rare and specialist parts. Although techniques like IJP and 3DP produce porous materials, there are restrictions on surface treatments. Future developments must focus on material innovation, process control, and enhanced forming methods to enable cost-effective, mass manufacturing of high-performance ceramics. To learn more, see our guide on What is Ceramic.

8. Invar

Invar, a nickel-iron alloy known for its low coefficient of thermal expansion, is ideal for applications requiring dimensional stability. What printing with Invar accomplishes is ensuring that the resulting component remains invariant in size. While it might not require an exceptionally precise starting point, the unique property of Invar—its low coefficient of thermal expansion—contributes to maintaining the component's dimensions consistently. Its unique properties make it valuable in various industries, including aerospace engineering. The innovative use of Invar in 3D printing signifies a pioneering approach that's still in the experimental stages, with the promise of offering enhanced capabilities in terms of dimensional control and stability.

9. Tantalum

In the aerospace industry, tantalum finds application in critical parts that are subjected to high-temperature and high-stress conditions. Tantalum's corrosion resistance is particularly advantageous in aerospace, where exposure to harsh environments, including moisture and varying temperatures, is common. Tantalum and other refractory metals are difficult to process traditionally, but 3D printing overcomes these challenges. Specific applications include: turbine blades, nozzle segments for satellite propulsion, and components for hypersonic flight.

10. Cobalt-Chrome Alloys

Cobalt-chrome alloys are known for their excellent properties, including: high strength, wear resistance, and biocompatibility. They find extensive applications in aerospace industries, particularly in gas turbine engines due to their ability to withstand high temperatures and mechanical stresses. Additionally, cobalt-chrome alloys are utilized in aerospace for engine components, aircraft parts, rocket propulsion, and heat shields. For more information, see our guide on Superalloys.

Do 3D-Printed Aerospace Structural Components Need To Meet Any Regulatory Standards?

Yes. Before being used in aircraft, 3D-printed aerospace structural components need to be approved and should follow all applicable regulations. Aviation places a high priority on reliability and safety, so these components must go through stringent testing and validation procedures. To ensure that 3D-printed parts meet the necessary quality and performance standards, regulatory organizations like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have strict standards in place. These standards guarantee the safe and reliable operation of aircraft.

What Is the Future of 3D Printing Structural Components in Aerospace?

The use of 3D printing in the aerospace industry has a bright future. Aerospace manufacturers are gradually switching some load-bearing and hot section components from traditional casting to 3D printing despite the current cost difficulties. More components are anticipated to be created using 3D printers as additive manufacturing technology continues to develop. The adoption of unmanned air vehicles and the retirement of older aircraft might happen more quickly, but regulatory approval remains a challenge. The use of 3D printing in aerospace is anticipated to increase over the next ten years as a result of developments in printing technology. For more information, see our guide on How Does a 3D Printer Work.

How Does 3D Printing of Aerospace Structural Parts Differ From Traditional Manufacturing?

The process and materials used in 3D printing structural components for aerospace are different from those used in traditional manufacturing. 3D printing uses additive techniques to build parts layer by layer from a digital model as opposed to subtractive processes like machining or casting. Complex geometries, less waste, and personalized designs are made possible by this. Numerous materials have the potential to be 3D printed as an alternative to undergoing machining, molding, or casting procedures.

Summary

This article presented 3D printing aerospace structural components, explained its purpose, and discussed the various materials used. To learn more about 3D printing in aerospace, contact a Xometry representative.

Xometry provides a wide range of manufacturing capabilities, including 3D printing 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.

Disclaimer

The content appearing on this webpage is for informational purposes only. Xometry makes no representation or warranty of any kind, be it expressed or implied, as to the accuracy, completeness, or validity of the information. Any performance parameters, geometric tolerances, specific design features, quality and types of materials, or processes should not be inferred to represent what will be delivered by third-party suppliers or manufacturers through Xometry’s network. Buyers seeking quotes for parts are responsible for defining the specific requirements for those parts. Please refer to our terms and conditions for more information.

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.

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