Ed Yuh, Project Engineering Manager, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing
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.
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.
It still offers one of the best solutions for weight reduction because it can cut down on the overall use of fasteners, adhesive and welds, which also reduces potential failure modes associated with joints.
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.
NASA’s exploration into 3D printing as an alternative manufacturing method for their rocket injectors is an example of how the technology has reduced manufacturing labor and time. We recently worked with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) on a functional prototype injector that originally contained 163 individual components when manufactured with conventional means. With 3D printing, we were able to create those same parts as two-piece functional prototypes that also passed hot fire, static and strenuous mechanical property tests.
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
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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.
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