The 3D Printing and Aerospace industry are arguably two of the most revolutionary industries in recent history; leading to massive progress in terms of development. Both of these industries have evolved at an explosive exponential rate over the past few decades, thus leading to massive improvements and efficiency in growth and research.
But how can these 3D printing be used in the aerospace industry ? That’s the question we’re going to answer in this article.
How can Aerospace Industry and 3D Printing Industry go well together
One of the most revolutionary methods of construction that is introduced by 3D printing is additive modeling (A.M), which simply means build from ground zero. This allows much more granular control over the components, whilst wasting much less material than the traditional way of construction, which is subtractive in nature, i.e., involving carving out the desired shape from a solid block.
Combine this with the fact that this is achieved in a relatively quicker span of time than the traditional method, means that it is almost a no-brainer for construction, but not quite…
(We have touched upon this topic in the following article – FDM 3D Printing: The most popular 3D printing technique globally)
Whilst on the other hand, the aerospace industry has a need for massive parts in massive numbers, which were, and still continue to be constructed mostly, by the traditional subtractive construction.
And as you can imagine, you’ll require very large blocks of solid materials in order to carve out these parts, which is a tough ask because from where are you going to find companies which deliver such large blocks, and even if you did, placing order has to be done well in advance, like months in advance.
This is part of the reason why we don’t see aerospace projects popping up every month. Apart from this time constraint, the fact that massive amounts will be carved out of the solid block means scrap production will be much higher, which can’t be good for the environment.
3D Printed parts are lighter in weight, which adds to their acceptability in aerospace industry. Moreover these parts can be optimized to a greater extent this helps saving fuel which is the major pain for most companies.
Thus additive construction and the aerospace industry seems like a match made in heaven, in theory at least, but in actuality, the way that it can be achieved is one complex task.
Where, why and how…
The why –
As we have discussed, the fact that aerospace requires very particularly large blocks of material, but that is both costly and impractical to keep in stock.
3D printing solves this as the printing materials are widely used throughout the world for builds, and the prices of these materials are a tiny fraction of the cost of the material that is traditionally required.
Thus keeping these printing materials in stock makes sense from both a financial point of view, as well as a time point of view because having materials in hand means that wait time for build materials is eliminated, and time required to produce products using additive manufacturing is typically less than conventional methods anyways.
The where –
Designing and validation –
Not limited by the limitations of the traditional way of manufacturing parts, the designing process can now include parts which weren’t feasible to produce before due to their complexity, but now they can be. This leads to massive reduction in terms of weight because you might be replacing functionality of multiple parts with one complex part, and “weight is a demon when it comes to anything that is flying”. Thus the overall reduction in weight without compromising on the functionality will always be a nice thing to have.
The design can also be heavily customized for specific aircrafts, and can easily be transmitted for it is only a 3d design file that is to be sent.
Combine this with the ability to rapidly print these highly detailed concept models, which can be as good as the final product in terms of design, for prototyping and testing, something that has always been a strength of the 3d printing industry, and the validation process for these designs becomes that much easier. As the tests for aerodynamicity and proof of concept can now be performed without actually having spent millions on actually crafting these products.
This validation process is a god-sent for the aerospace industry because it mitigates the risk factor on investing into production of these products.
Engines for rockets and airplanes are the most budding use case of 3D printing. This is because 3D printing can be done in lesser volumes and is highly customisable.
Aerospace industry requires parts in masses, often more than 70,000 parts per year, and even though 3D printing has been an integral part of the prototyping phase in this industry, the recent improvements to industrial 3D printers can make additive manufacturing an integral part of the production chain as well.
The fact that recent improvements makes 3D printing viable in medium sized-productions right now, and with surprisingly high details, this just gives reassurance that these two industries have a future together.
Well, plastic is the most common printing material, and the one which comes to most people’s minds, when it comes to 3D printing, but in order to make the parts required by the aerospace industry, there are a variety of build materials required.
For example –
- Console controls, seat backs and seals for entry doors require typical resins
- Suspensions and engine requires titanium and aluminum
- Dashboard requires digital ABS plastic
- Headlights require transparent resin
The printing process also differs from part to part, some parts are better off with Polyjet printing , some are better off using Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), some are better off using Stereolithography Printing (SLA).
Future of these two industries together
With recent innovations, it seems as if these two industries are destined to be together for years to come. Printing metals as well as other printing methodologies means that printing materials such as titanium is a reality, which is a game-changer in terms of viability of the 3D printing industry overall.
Aerospace industry adopted 3D printing in the late 1980’s for prototyping, and has never looked back since. This adoption leads to much lower costs as well as manpower required than before, whilst resulting in aircrafts that are much more fuel-efficient than their traditionally-constructed counterparts.
Thus it’s safe to say, both of these industries will thrive, and with an emphasis on space exploration, innovations in these two industries will continue to happen.
Whilst it all seems good on paper, there are certain limitations that are preventing the widespread adoption of the same. These include –
Limited material choices
- The current selection of materials which can be printed is always an achilles heel in the adoption of the 3D printing industry.
Restricted build size
- Even though modern industrial printers are able to print products that are much larger than what was possible before, it hasn’t caught up to the scale of products required by the aerospace industry, but it is slowly catching up and you might want to keep an eye out for it.
- As the name suggests, the post-processing is done in order to make the products viable to use. Even though the material loss during post processing is minuscule compared to subtractive manufacturing, it is still there.
Large volumes of printing
- As we have discussed, the sheer amount of materials required is in the tens of thousands, the cost per unit would not reduce until and unless there is a major breakthrough in the 3D printing industry.