The aerospace industry relies on innovation to grow and overcome challenges.
3D printing is one of the most explosive and disruptive manufacturing processes to have hit the engineering industry in the last few years. It has the potential to change how we create structures, components, and machines across all industries, and is starting to make a difference in the aviation and aerospace industries.
Traditionally, metal parts are carved out of aluminium or other materials. This can be an expensive and time-consuming process. 3D printing can build components automatically, adding layers of metal or other materials on top of each other. Printed parts are typically much lighter than metal ones, which results in more fuel-efficient planes, which in turn results in savings. Over a plane’s lifetime, this can be a huge sum of money.
Roughly every fifteen years, the global aviation fleet doubles in size. This puts tremendous pressure on manufacturers, having to consistently create new planes while keeping in line with new legislation. 3D printing can drastically reduce the time it takes to create plane parts, and will soon be the industry standard for manufacturing certain elements.
However, such a massive global fleet is clearly not sustainable. Again, 3D printing can help in this area, as most 3D printed parts are considerably lighter. Weight impacts a plane’s payload, fuel consumption, emissions, and speed. Key components like air ducts, wall panels, seat frameworks and even engine components have all benefited from reduced weight thanks to 3D printing.
Honeywell, a leading engineering company that works in the aerospace sector, is already using 3D printing in their supply chain, aiming to improve all existing components and process for optimal speed. They have already received approval from the FAA for eighteen different components, and aims for a further two hundred.
3D printing elements can drastically cut down on the time and parts needed to build sections of a plane. A heat exchanger for a catalyst can be made of as much as 300 separate components, but can now be printed as a single part.
Airbus has already begun using 3D printed parts in their airplanes, some of which have around a thousand 3D printed parts in them. Some of their parts weigh up to a third less than traditional metal components.
Boeing has already used 3D printing to make over 60,000 parts. The Dreamliner 737 uses 30 3D printed parts, and this will likely get higher as more parts are developed and improved.
Because 3D printed parts can make planes lighter, quieter, and more efficient, it’s an area that all aviation companies are looking to invest in. This is having a big impact on the additive manufacturing sector – aerospace accounts for roughly 20% of the market.
Etihad is allegedly looking at every part inside of the cabin, seeing how feasible it would be to 3D print them. Their Innovation Centre in Abu Dhabi will be used to reimagine non-flying parts, seeing how they can be improved using cutting-edge design and manufacturing processes.
Initiatives like this are why Etihad was the first airline MRO permitted by the EASA to certify, manufacture, and utilise 3D printed parts in-house.
3D printing is almost certainly the future of manufacturing. In a field like aviation, where the weight and efficiency of the plane is of paramount importance, innovations like this promise to keep things as competitive as possible.
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