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3D printing applications in the aerospace industry are a guiding ruler with which to measure the success of the overall 3D printing industry. From giants like GE Aviation relying on metal 3D printing for production components, and Boeing and Airbus boasting thousands of 3D printed parts on its aircrafts, the advances of 3D printing on a production scale have perhaps most boisterously been verified by the aerospace community before trickling down to other industries. Put simply, aerospace usage of 3D printing is a driving force behind industry-wide adoption of 3D printing for production.


We know from the success stories of aerospace production that the payoff from 3D printing isn’t fully realized until you’ve invested in three key areas: training engineers how to design for 3D printing; research and development into standardization of materials and processes; and developing clear parameters for quality control to achieve repeatability.

First, we’ll look at why 3D printing and aerospace get along so well together in the larger manufacturing picture.

The transformation

It’s not surprising 3D printing quickly became a critical solution in aerospace manufacturing so soon after its introduction to shop floors. 3D printing is that rare process that can drastically simplify complex assemblies through consolidation, where multiple parts can be combined into and built as a single component – and often at a much shorter leadtime.

By minimizing assembly processes, 3D printing helps simplify Bill of Material and inventory management – a huge consideration for aircraft supply chain management. There’s also great interest in the idea of a portable and virtual inventory where parts can be printed out on-demand. Overall, 3D printing continues to offer one of the easiest ways to decrease cost and increase productivity by saving weight, time and parts.

But 3D printing can also add complexity where it’s beneficial. We still remember when starting a new project meant hitting the drafting table where it’s easier to stick to straight lines and circles (simpler geometries for simpler fabrication methods.) It’s not wrong to think the only way to ensure a part withstands applied loads is to thicken up the entire design, but today we don’t have to waste material and add weight to get a strong part. 3D printing can grow localized strengthening features using organic inspirations that mimic honeycomb and bone growth in those same areas where stress is concentrated on a design while at the same time removing material in sections with little or no load.

Relying on 3D printing for its organic manufacturing freedom has resulted in a few key areas of manufacturing success for aerospace part design: zero tooling restraints, optimal conformal shapes for improved efficiency/ functionality, and customer design for adaptive technology. At Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, the most common parts we manufacture for aerospace suppliers involve everything from behind the scenes to human interfacing including:

Full-length, lightweight conformal ducting systems
Dynamic galley systems
Decorative parts to resemble chrome-plated metal or wood
Fuel nozzles
Sensor housings
Drain fairings

3D printing is one of the fastest ways to lower costs, part count and weight on a project, which fits many aerospace needs. MRO Aerospace, for example, is evaluating 3D printing for virtual inventory of on-demand parts. However, the technology still has a long way to go, especially in terms of larger adoption. Getting there requires some help from young engineers with a fresh perspective.

However, the road to 3D printing adoption isn’t filled with young rebel engineers fighting against traditional manufacturing. We need the expertise of engineers who have long worked with tough project challenges to bring 3D printing into fruitful full-scale adoption. However, because 3D printing is only just permeating schools and universities, education in how to use the technology to its full potential is still missing from the larger picture.

Knowledge and quality standardization

Despite the efforts of young 3D printing champions, there are still hurdles to overcome for 3D printing adoption. Education and standard training resources are one example. Another is the need for more production floor personnel with some design knowledge.

While 3D printing has lowered barriers to entry for smaller manufacturers through reduced program development costs and offers an economical way to produce one-off and low volume parts, knowledge on designing for 3D printing is a much larger gap to breach than simply bringing a 3D printer in-house.

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Bridging the knowledge gap requires open discussions between manufacturers who are veterans in the field and have developed their own tried and true process parameters for 3D printing. Efforts in developing 3D printing design guidelines and process specifications are fragmented, but have been the focus of larger aerospace companies and 3D printing service providers who supply aircraft parts. As there is no established industry guideline available today that ensures 3D printing processes can reliably produce parts with consistent mechanical characteristics, there is still a “wait and see” approach taken by smaller companies unsure where or how to invest in 3D printing. A grassroots effort by America Makes to spread the technology through education is a step in the right direction, but a broader call to action is still needed.

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