Stratasys’ vice-president aerospace, Scott Sevcik looks at the evolution of 3D printing/additive manufacturing (AM) within aerospace, how it continues to drive efficiencies throughout the value chain and the production challenges ahead.
The aerospace sector has always been an early adopter of new technologies, on a continued quest to reduce both aircraft weight and costs. The embrace of 3D printing/additive manufacturing (AM) is testament to that – especially within the supply chain and after-market.
The industry has come a long way since the early nineties where OEMs initially started exploring the viability of 3D printed prototype parts within the aircraft design process. Thanks to significant technological progress – most notably advances in material development – the applications gamut for AM within aerospace quickly expanded. OEMs, now enlightened by the production agility and efficiencies that can be unlocked with AM, soon progressed to using the technology for various jigs & fixture applications to meet tooling needs.
Such is the now commonplace existence of these applications within our sector that they are today almost taken for granted. Instead, a larger and ongoing focus over the last five or six years has centred on the growing use of AM to produce flight parts for production. This is evidenced by Airbus’ recent contract extension with Stratasys. Having successfully deployed 3D printed parts within its A350 aircraft for several years, Airbus is now expanding the adoption of AM across the company’s entire aircraft portfolio for the creation of spare parts for its MRO operations.
Breaking down this flight part category, we continue to see OEMs select AM for a growing variety of cabin interior applications, but more recently we have worked with leading players to develop materials that can also extend to flight parts beyond the cabin. A good example is Boeing, which recently qualified our Antero FDM material for this requirement. With high chemical resistance and fatigue performance, this particular material can withstand exposure to hydraulic fluids and fuels, ensuring its suitability for a plethora of parts throughout the aircraft.
For me, this encapsulates the way in which OEMs and 3D printing companies like ourselves need to work together in order to further expand the application potential of AM.
Regardless of the challenge, the objective for most customers is to use AM to 3D print parts that reduce both weight and costs, and there are several ways in which the technology delivers in this regard.
First, using high-performance thermoplastics to replace metal parts can significantly reduce weight. Additional lightweighting can also be achieved during the design of the part. Building additively layer by layer enables the production of complex geometries such as hollow cell structures not achievable with traditional methods. We are seeing customers often leverage this geometric freedom to consolidate a number of components into a single part, versus traditional methods that necessitate individual assembly of multiple pieces and require more labour. Fundamentally, all of these weight savings mean less fuel use, or less required battery mass for new electric aircraft – highlighting how AM can directly affect the economics of flight.
We are seeing multiple new platforms in development, creating new markets such as Urban Air Mobility or Electric Vertical Take-off and Landing (eVTOL), and the relaunch of supersonic transport. Because certain AM technologies have matured, these new platforms have the opportunity to take advantage of AM in the design and development stage to an extent that simply wasn’t possible in the previous generation. We notice this particularly in the development of Boom Supersonic’s aircraft as they have been very open in sharing details on how they are building the next generation of supersonic passenger vehicles. The XB-1 demonstrator aircraft carries hundreds of FDM printed parts.
When it comes to manufacturing costs, the very nature of aerospace production lends itself perfectly to the value proposition of AM. Unlike the automotive industry where millions of cars are produced annually, only a couple of thousand or so new aircraft are manufactured each year. AM makes high-investment tooling redundant, giving OEMs and their suppliers the ability to produce low-volume parts quickly and cost-effectively – particularly valuable when it comes to spare parts. The ability to exploit the full benefits of on-demand, localised production – the exact quantity required, where it’s needed, when it’s needed – avoids a huge amount of cost for aerospace OEMs. With no constraint on minimum order quantities, there’s no need to over-produce and stock high quantities of inventory, which may never be used – ultimately resulting in wastage and disposal costs.
Of course, these agility, performance and efficiency-enhancing attributes have been recognised by the major OEMs like Airbus and Boeing for some time. Now, however, we are increasingly seeing AM being embraced downstream within their supply chains. Customers such as BAE Systems and Senior Aerospace BWT are prime examples. Having found that their own OEM clients are now fully appreciative of the collective benefits offered by AM, they have been able to integrate it as a de facto solution within their own operations, supplying robust and repeatable 3D printed parts, while driving cost and time efficiencies for themselves in the process.
In fact, when it comes to AM’s extensive capabilities, I would be remiss not to refer to the various dynamics witnessed by its use in the early phase of the Covid-19 crisis last year. Needless to say, the aerospace sector was hit quite heavily, resulting in a significant decrease in aircraft production. Although some balance was created as aerospace companies were able to quickly switch to the production of PPE, we are still seeing aircraft production rates lower than they otherwise would be.
However, the increased requirement for much lower part volumes has underscored the strong rationale for AM, such that the make-buy analysis and trade-off between its use against traditional manufacturing technology (for large run, series parts) has shifted.
Indeed, despite the negative way in which our sector has been impacted, the agility of AM proved to be a considerable asset with the argument for AM perfectly underscored: not known as being the nimblest of sectors, aerospace answered the call to arms very quickly at the start of the pandemic. Realising that they already had the technology to shift production from aircraft tools and parts to face shields and then swiftly switch back opened the eyes of the unaware and the sceptics within some of those companies as AM’s strengths shone through.
As a result, decision makers within aerospace companies have a new vantage point when it comes to taking a closer look at the argument for AM as they face the ongoing low-rate production challenge, as well as strive for increased cost effectiveness.
For those of us on the development side of AM, its benefits were already clear, whether it is during a global pandemic or otherwise. Be that as it may, I still believe AM has much more to offer as we continue to push new boundaries with materials development and open up new application areas to address and fulfil our customers’ ongoing and ever-challenging needs.