From ideas to reality


Proto Labs director, Damian Hennessey looks at how the UK aerospace industry is undergoing a transformation via the increasing adoption of digital manufacturing processes.

In an increasingly competitive international market, the UK aerospace industry is continuously searching for ways to improve passenger experience while becoming more energy efficient and scaling back costs. To support this, the UK Government last year invested £100 million in attracting new skills, technology and innovation to the industry.

Embracing this spirit of innovation as they seek out new means of reducing weight and emissions and increasing cargo capacity, airline manufacturers are looking to the latest digital manufacturing technology for a way forward.

Digital manufacturing technology is providing organisations across a range of industries with new and exciting opportunities to improve their speed to market and transform their businesses. Alongside significant developments in existing technology, the advances in automation and the new types of manufacturing processes it offers represent part of an ongoing transformation within the aerospace industry.

Damian Hennessey
Damian Hennessey

Indeed, advancements in 3D printing are already delivering tangible benefits to airline manufacturers currently employing the technology to reduce material and labour costs, allowing the testing of small components such as those vital to the construction of engines and landing gear. In their recent United Launch Alliance joint venture, for example, Boeing and Lockheed Martin reported an annual saving of $1m as a result of switching to 3D printing technology to manufacture components.

Ideas to reality within days

It’s more than just about driving down costs, however. The manufacturing industry overall is being shaped by customer demand. With customers expecting rapidly produced parts to be made readily available within a matter of days, manufacturers are faced with the challenge of producing components at speed without compromising on quality or customer satisfaction.

Within the aerospace industry itself, it is of huge importance that components can be moved quickly and inexpensively from concept stage to finished product.

Rapid prototyping involves the use of automated 3D printing techniques, such as stereolithography, direct metal laser sintering and selective laser sintering, as well as advanced CNC machining or advanced injection moulding, and allows ideas to become reality within days of being uploaded via a CAD screen.

Depending on the technique used, prototypes can be produced in quick turnaround, allowing them to be used for visual inspection, ergonomic evaluation, form-fit analysis and as a master pattern for product tools among other things. Indeed, in some cases the use of some rapid prototyping methods in product manufacturing has led to a 60% shorter turnaround time than with more traditional methods.


3D printing, in particular, lends itself to quick-turn prototyping and short production runs, and is especially beneficial when printing multiple components at the same time; even more so if these components are intricate in design and demand great dimensional tolerances. After all, as aircraft, and their component parts, become smaller and more efficient, so the geometry of these parts becomes ever more complex.

Industry transformation

A recent report by Airbus suggests that the global demand for aircraft and also, therefore, for their constituent components, is set to increase dramatically over the coming decades. It predicts, for example, that by 2034 there will be a 106% increase in the demand for passenger planes alone.

This predicted increase in demand will require manufacturers to give serious consideration to their current processes and embrace new technologies that will allow them to meet expectations.

Aerospace manufacturers are already considering new design and manufacturing techniques that will allow them to meet demands for more efficient and innovative designs while working with increasingly restricted budgets.

It’s likely that, over the next ten years, the aerospace industry will undergo significant transformation, and manufacturers will be required to lead in terms of innovation. Digital manufacturing and 3D printing in particular, can open the door to this innovation and drive this transformation forward.


Proto Labs

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