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

6 Main Advantages of 3D Printing in the Aircraft Industry

Xomety X
By Team Xometry
June 17, 2023
 13 min read
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The aircraft industry has embraced the transformative potential of 3D printing. Also known as additive manufacturing, this groundbreaking technology has opened new possibilities, revolutionizing the way aircraft components are designed, prototyped, and constructed. 3D printing has emerged as a game-changer in this industry that must constantly innovate, reduce costs, and improve performance. From lightweight designs and cost efficiencies to streamlined production processes and environmental sustainability, 3D printing offers a multitude of advantages that are reshaping the future of aircraft manufacturing. 

In this article, we will explore the six main advantages of 3D printing in the aircraft industry, highlighting how this technology is propelling the industry towards unprecedented heights of efficiency, customization, and environmental responsibility.

1. Simplify the Parts

3D printing allows you to consolidate what would be multiple components into a single, more streamlined part. Fulfilling multiple functions with fewer parts means you reduce complexity, simplify the assembly process, and eliminate points of failure. That’s good for reliability, maintenance, and manufacturing alike. 

2. Fast Production

Additive manufacturing offers faster production capabilities compared to traditional manufacturing methods. That translates into quick turnaround times, enabling manufacturers to respond swiftly to production demands, urgent repairs, or prototype iterations. This advantage is crucial for maintaining fleet availability, reducing downtime, and responding to urgent maintenance or replacement needs.

3. Weight Reduction

3D printing lets you create lightweight and optimized structures. It allows for the fabrication of intricate internal lattice structures, which can significantly reduce weight while maintaining structural integrity. Lighter aircraft are more fuel efficient, can carry more payload, and often see better overall performance. The whole machine benefits when you minimize the components’ mass. Since parts are usually lighter when printed than when conventionally constructed, additive manufacturing is a perfect technology for aviation. 

4. Improved Aircraft Design

Additive manufacturing opens up new design possibilities. The freedom to create complex geometries, internal channels, and lightweight structures provides opportunities for innovative and optimized aircraft designs. This can result in better aerodynamics, strength-to-weight ratios, and functional integration. With 3D printing's design flexibility, engineers can push boundaries and explore novel solutions. 

5. Improved Supply Chain

The introduction of 3D printing technology in the aircraft industry has brought about significant improvements in the supply chain. Traditionally, supply chains for aircraft parts involved complex logistics, long lead times, and large spare-part inventories. However, 3D printing can make the supply chain more streamlined and efficient. Since you can print parts on demand, there’s no need for massive standing inventories or the large facilities and inventory management systems needed to support them. Instead of waiting for parts to be sourced from external suppliers or manufacturing facilities, 3D printing lets you create the parts internally, in-house, or on-site. You gain more control over your supply chain when you’re not dependent on external suppliers.  More to the point, that means faster aircraft repairs, less downtime, and increased operational efficiency.

6. Reduced Supply Chain Cost

3D printing technology has also reduced supply chain costs in the aircraft industry. The traditional supply chain for aircraft parts includes tooling, transportation, storage, and inventory management. 3D printers can reduce or even eliminate many of these expense factors. Since 3D printing allows for on-demand production, you no longer need to maintain a large spare parts inventory, saving you the money associated with inventory management, storage, and the risk of obsolete parts. Additionally, 3D printing reduces your reliance on external suppliers, thereby reducing transportation costs and lead times. Furthermore, the simplified part designs made possible by 3D printing often require fewer components and materials, reducing material costs and waste. 

How Is the Manufacturing Aircraft Industry Before 3D Printing Technology?

Before the advent of 3D printing technology, the aircraft manufacturing industry was stuck with so-called conventional manufacturing methods. The process went though time-consuming stages: design, prototyping, tooling, and assembly. Designers and engineers would create detailed blueprints and specifications for the aircraft components which would then be sent to specialized manufacturing facilities.

Conventionally speaking, repairs are time-consuming affairs. First, the specific part needs to be identified, which requires inspections and assessments. Then, the information is forwarded to the manufacturing facility responsible for producing the part. The manufacturing facility has to go through the lengthy process of creating the tooling required for production, which may mean designing and machining specialized molds or dies. Once the tooling is ready, the actual production can begin. This process takes considerable time due to the need for precision machining and assembly, quality control checks, and compliance with strict aviation regulations. Finally, the finished part is shipped to the aircraft maintenance facility, which adds further delays due to logistical considerations. For more information, see our 3D Printing in Aerospace Industry guide.

How Does 3D Printing Technology Evolve Over Time?

3D printing technology has evolved significantly over time, becoming ever more capable, versatile, and accessible. Early versions of 3D printers were limited in terms of size, speed, and accuracy. However, modern printers offer higher resolutions, faster printing speeds, and improved precision. 3D printing has transitioned from being primarily used for prototyping to becoming a viable manufacturing method for end-use parts. Industrial-grade 3D printers offer large build volumes, fast print speeds, and impressive reliability.

Stereolithography (SLA), the first 3D printing process, was invented by Charles W. Hull in the 1980s. Since then, more 3D printing processes have been developed, such as fused deposition modeling (FDM), selective laser sintering (SLS), digital light processing (DLP), and others. With these new methods have come new capabilities and a wider material selection. Each of these processes has its uses and capabilities. The two most common 3D printing processes used in the low-volume manufacturing and rapid prototyping of aircraft parts are FDM and SLS.

Initially, 3D printers were predominantly limited to plastics. However, the range of printable materials has expanded significantly. Today, it includes metals, ceramics, composites, biocompatible materials, and even food-grade substances. Software for designing and preparing 3D models has also improved, becoming more user-friendly and powerful. CAD (computer-aided design) software enables engineers and designers to create intricate and complex geometries, optimize designs for 3D printing, and simulate the behavior of parts before printing them. These tools streamline the design-to-print workflow and enhance the precision and efficiency of the process.

As 3D printing technology has evolved, it has become more accessible and affordable to a wider range of users. Some 3D printers can be had for entry-level prices, making it possible for individuals, hobbyists, and small businesses to engage in 3D printing. Additionally, 3D printing services have emerged, allowing users to upload designs to be printed professionally without the need for a personal printer.

What Role Does 3D Printing Play in the Design and Production of Aircraft Parts?

3D printing allows engineers and designers to create highly complex and optimized designs that would be difficult or impossible to manufacture using traditional methods. With 3D printing, intricate geometries, lightweight structures, and internal features are simple to build, leading to improved performance and efficiency of aircraft parts. 3D printing is also perfect for quick and cost-effective prototyping. Engineers can validate their designs, perform functional testing, and make design iterations in a shorter time frame. For more information, see our guide on 3D Printing Aerospace Parts.

How Does 3D Printing Improve the Performance and Safety of Aircraft Components?

3D printing enables engineers to optimize aircraft components for specific performance parameters. Components can be analyzed and refined to maximize strength, durability, and efficiency through advanced software tools and simulation techniques. 3D printing also enables the use of advanced materials with specific properties and performance characteristics. The specialized polymers, composites, and even metal alloys are themselves frequently optimized for strength, heat resistance, and durability. These materials can be tailored to meet the stringent requirements of aircraft components, ensuring safety and reliability in demanding operating conditions. Additionally, 3D printing allows for the rapid production of prototypes for iterative design and testing processes. Engineers can quickly produce functional prototypes and test them in real-world conditions to evaluate performance, identify potential issues, and make necessary design improvements. For more information, see our guide on Engine components.

What are the Environmental Benefits of Using 3D Printing in Aircraft Manufacturing?

The use of 3D printing in aircraft manufacturing offers several environmental benefits, including:

  1. Reduced Material Waste: Most 3D printers use only enough material to create a component. It doesn’t need to be machined off and discarded. This reduces material waste and conserves resources.
  2. Lightweight Design: 3D printing enables the creation of complex and lightweight designs that aren’t attainable with conventional manufacturing techniques. Less mass equates to lower fuel consumption and thus minimizes greenhouse emissions.
  3. Consolidation of Parts: Additive manufacturing lets you consolidate multiple components into a single part. Fewer separate parts also mean fewer fasteners and joints. This again minimizes weight, streamlines assembly, and ultimately improves the aircraft’s energy efficiency. 
  4. On-Demand Manufacturing: 3D printing enables on-demand manufacturing, which reduces the need for large-scale production, warehousing, and transportation of pre-manufactured components. Manufacturers can produce parts as needed, reducing inventory requirements, waste, and associated carbon emissions from transportation and storage.
  5. Sustainable Materials: The evolution of 3D printing materials has included the development of eco-friendly and sustainable options. Most 3D printing materials are not biodegradable, but some newer ones are bio-based or derived from recycled sources, contributing to a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process.
  6. Extended Lifecycle and Repair: 3D printing can facilitate more efficient repairs and maintenance of aircraft components. Rather than replacing an entire component, specific sections can be 3D printed and integrated into the existing structure, extending the lifecycle of the component and reducing waste.

How Does 3D Printing Enhance the Speed and Efficiency of Aircraft Production?

3D printing enables rapid prototyping and iteration of designs. The ability to quickly produce functional prototypes allows engineers and designers to evaluate and test different design iterations in a much shorter time frame. This accelerates the product development process. 3D printing allows parts to be produced as they become needed, reducing inventory costs and the need for extensive storage. This on-demand manufacturing approach also minimizes supply chain delays; if you have access to your own printer, you can make components in-house and skip the sourcing delays entirely. 

What New Opportunities Does 3D Printing Create for Aircraft Design and Innovation?

3D printing opens up new opportunities for aircraft design and innovation. A few are listed below:

  1. 3D printers can produce highly complex and intricate geometries that are challenging or impossible to manufacture using conventional methods.
  2. Multiple parts may be integrated into a single component, reducing the number of separate pieces and simplifying assembly processes.
  3. Personalized and one-off components no longer require individualized tooling. Each aircraft may have unique requirements or modifications.
  4. Designers can quickly produce functional prototypes for testing and evaluation, allowing for faster design iterations and refinement. 
  5. Some advanced materials are easier to print than to manufacture by traditional methods. Lightweight alloys, high-strength composites, and other specialized materials often fit well into 3D printing processes.
  6. 3D printers can produce components on-site, reducing downtime and costs associated with maintenance operations and eliminating shipping delays.

How are Leading Aircraft Manufacturers Leveraging 3D Printing Technology?

Leading aircraft manufacturers actively use 3D printing technology to enhance their manufacturing processes, improve aircraft performance, and drive innovation. Some examples are listed below:

  1. Airbus uses additive manufacturing to produce components such as cabin brackets, wing brackets, and air ducts. Airbus has also partnered with Materialise, a 3D printing software and service provider, to develop software that optimizes the design and production of 3D-printed parts.
  2. Boeing has integrated 3D printing into their manufacturing processes, primarily focusing on prototyping and low-volume production parts. Many of their environmental control system ducts, structural parts, and tooling items are now printed. Boeing has also collaborated with Norsk Titanium to develop 3D-printed titanium structural components for their aircraft.
  3. GE Aviation makes extensive use of 3D printing in their aircraft engines. They have developed advanced fuel nozzles using additive manufacturing techniques, resulting in improved engine performance and fuel efficiency. GE Aviation has also invested in additive manufacturing research and development centers to further explore the potential of 3D printing in aerospace.
  4. Rolls-Royce 3D-prints components such as turbine blades and fuel nozzles. They have also partnered with the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute to advance the use of additive manufacturing in aerospace.
  5. Lockheed Martin employs additive manufacturing for prototyping, tooling, and creating complex geometries in their components. Lockheed Martin has also invested in research and development initiatives to get more out of 3D printing in the future. 
  6. Prodways Technologies is a joint venture between Boeing and Safran which focuses on developing additive manufacturing processes for aerospace applications. They aim to develop industrial-grade 3D printers capable of producing large-scale structural aircraft components using high-performance polymers.

What Will Be the Impact of 3D Printing in the Aircraft Industry's Future?

3D printing is expected to be transformative to aircraft design, manufacture, and maintenance. By its nature, 3D printing encourages innovation in aircraft design. This enables engineers to explore novel concepts, improve aerodynamics, and enhance performance. The ability to create customized components tailored to specific needs opens up new avenues for innovation. 3D printing also offers the potential for improved efficiency and cost reduction by streamlining manufacturing processes, reducing material waste, and enabling on-demand production. Finally, 3D printing allows for the production of lightweight, yet robust components that meet stringent performance and safety requirements. 

Can 3D Printing Minimize the Aircraft Industry's Overhead Costs?

Yes, 3D printing technology has the potential to minimize the overhead costs in the aircraft industry in different ways. Firstly, it reduces tooling costs as it eliminates or reduces the need for expensive specialized tools, molds, and fixtures. Secondly, it enables the on-demand production of parts, reducing the need for large inventories and the associated costs of storage, logistics, and potential obsolescence. Additionally, 3D printing simplifies the complex supply chain in the aircraft industry. Consolidating multiple parts into a single 3D-printed component reduces the number of suppliers involved and streamlines the supply chain. 

Summary

This article presented the main advantages of 3D printing in the aircraft industry, explained them, and discussed each of them in great detail. To learn more about 3D printing in the aircraft industry, 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.

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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.