Chris Elsworthy, CEL-UK’s managing director and lead mechanical engineer reveals how scalable 3D printing can give aerospace manufacturers the flexibility they need ahead of Brexit.
Aerospace manufacturing, like many other industries in the UK, is facing uncertainty due to the global political climate and of course, Brexit. However, troubles with financial strains and political uncertainty are, to an extent, nothing new and can, as ever, be overcome by effective planning. This is where scalable 3D printing can play a leading role.
Virtually every field of aerospace manufacturing, from R&D through to maintenance, has always experienced some sort of delays. Holdups can be due to a multitude of reasons, from custom borders and transport issues through to supply, and while they can be difficult to predict, many of these delays could be overcome by 3D printing.
Starting with R&D, a scalable network of small 3D printers can be incorporated into existing workflows and expanded in line with changing business needs. It gives design engineers working across numerous fields of aerospace the ability to realise physical prototypes at a speed that would be unthinkable with traditional tooling or even with larger, standalone 3D printers.
By utilising a networked system, aerospace manufacturing companies can invest in 3D print prototyping suites that enable iterative design in-house. In this way, they can avoid delays with sending away prototype designs to third-party companies that could be miles or even nations away.
Bringing prototyping in-house enables design engineers to create accurate prototypes on the spot, helping speed up the overall development process. In turn, this enables them to unleash their creativity by testing multiple designs at once rather than sending away just one design and waiting days for that model to return. With multiple, small 3D printers in place, delays caused by engineers having to wait in a queue before being able to access a standalone machine are also avoided.
The benefits that 3D printing can bring to aerospace design and prototyping are clear, but what about the actual manufacturing of parts? As Brexit threatens to disrupt the supply chain, the ability to make parts in situ becomes especially important for aerospace manufacturers.
As every part of the airframe needs to be certified for airworthiness, the use of 3D printing is yet to become widespread in this area. But its use as a tool is already a reality. Working alongside traditional tooling, 3D printers are able to make bespoke jigs and fixtures quickly while developing and refining them as needed with little expense or hands-on time. The ability to make complicated jigs for the production line there and then can of course boost efficiency and reduce downtime.
The use of 3-axis 3D printers is already making its mark in the aerospace industry, with some companies working towards producing air-worthy parts, for example seats. The ability to quickly create bespoke parts will, in future, allow the industry to be more innovative with its designs and add features and functions without penalties.
5-axis 3D printing is now elevating the technology to a new level. The extra axis of movement enables the printers to deposit round corners from any direction. Parts that would have been only possible by bolting together multiple components or building time-consuming support structures can now be printed easily and quickly. Users can also functionalise a component using multiple materials, electrical conductors or other features. A 5-axis machine’s ability to follow complex surfaces means it doesn’t need to start with a flat-bed every time, which reduces print time and improves part performance.
3D printing is proving a tool that can integrate effectively into the aerospace manufacturing process enabling the creation of parts and designs that would have been impossible otherwise. Irrespective of how Brexit eventually pans out, this technology will continue to help aerospace manufacturers improve their design and production processes while driving further innovation in this industry.
For more information on scalable 3D printing and how it can make 3D printing faster and more accurate, download the white paper, ‘Stackable: the key to faster and more accurate 3D printing’.