The advancements of 3D printing have pushed for the creation of a new market. The aviation and aerospace industries have begun using 3D printers to make machine components which can reduce the cost and duration of manufacturing aircrafts, without sacrificing quality, reliability or safety. Below, find out the new advancements being made with this incredible printer!
When a moving assembly line first appeared in Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory in 1913, car making was instantly transformed. Today, 3D printing is proving to be a game-changer for manufacturing.
Just as a photocopier can reproduce exact copy after exact copy of 2D pages quickly, cheaply and reliably, 3D printers can do the same for machine components. And nowhere is this evolving technology more relevant than in aviation and aerospace, where weight and cost are key considerations.
In fact, according to a report from Research and Markets, the 3D printing market for global aerospace and defense is forecast to grow from $1.56 billion today to $5.9 billion by 2026.
NASA was an early adopter of the technology, using it to make plastic models as far back as the late 1980s, before the term “3D printing” had even been coined.
The U.S. space agency was quick to recognize the benefits of additive manufacturing, using a process called laser engineered net shaping (LENS) that fed metallic powder into a laser beam to create a product layer by layer. The technology was extremely precise but very slow, taking an hour to produce just one cubic centimeter.
The solution was the forerunner of today’s 3D printers, which can produce complex parts more easily than conventional methods. In some cases, parts can be produced that surpass conventional means of production.
Components can be printed more quickly and cheaply, and with less material, which makes an attractive proposition for aerospace and aviation manufacturers. From a simple passenger socket in aircraft cabins to complex components for space rockets, the opportunities are seemingly endless.
As printed components are generally lighter and stronger than those made using existing manufacturing methods, they improve fuel efficiency. Less fuel means lower costs and fewer emissions, which reduces the impact on the environment.
For existing planes in need of a refit, updated or upgraded parts can be printed with less time, expense and material , extending the life of aircraft. Maintenance, repair and overhaul is big business that’s likely to grow in an airline market predicted to reach 8.2 billion passengers by 2037.
A market forecast by Airbus estimates that commercial aircraft upgrade services will be worth $180 billion over the next 20 years. Printing replacement components on demand means inventory levels can be kept to a minimum, and provides a cost-effective, reliable and safe way to minimize downtime and keep planes in the air.
The speed at which strong, lightweight components can be printed is attracting a lot of attention from major aviation industry manufacturers, such as Lockheed Martin, which is working with Arconic to develop new manufacturing processes, including metal 3D printing.
Switching from traditional casting and welding processes to engines crafted with the help of additive manufacturing represents a step change. But emerging technologies are not without their challenges. Before printed components can take to the skies, they will need to meet stringent aviation standards, such as gaining Federal Aviation Administration approval in the United States — the world’s largest aviation market.
Innovating for quality
Although this approval process is putting the brakes on the 3D printing industry’s forward momentum, safety is a vital consideration for both aviation and aerospace.
In order to comply with strict regulations, manufacturers must be able to guarantee the quality of their finished printed component. In most machines, measuring the size and shape of a printed part is easy. But the only way to check the manufacturing integrity is to break it open, which is self-defeating.
Innovation provides the solution. Haruhiko Niitani, senior vice president and chief business officer of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Machine Tool (MAT), a part of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) Group says the company uses a groundbreaking monitoring system that observes the 3D printing process in real time to ensure quality.
“The unique system analyzes feedback and makes automatic adjustments to guarantee structural consistency,” Niitani says. “Clients can access a complete record of the printing process, giving full product traceability down the line.”
Advances such as these are driving the sector forward.
In July, NASA selected Carnegie Mellon University to research ways to use 3D printing that reduce the cost and duration of manufacturing aircraft, without sacrificing quality, reliability or safety.
And today, companies such as Emirates airlines are developing 3D video monitoring projectors and ventilator grills for their aircraft. The technology is being applied to everything from helicopter engines and U.S. Army Perdix drones to reinforced metal fuselage panels.
And tomorrow? Eventually, astronauts could be blasting into space in 3D-printed rockets, soaring to explore new frontiers thanks to this fast-evolving technology.