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AEROSPACE Additive Manufacturing growing its grasp in the aerospace sector

May 8, 2020

The aerospace industry is a significant example of application of Additive Manufacturing (AM), with a strong value plan and the capability to generate parts that are stronger and lighter than parts made using conventional manufacturing. AM is a disruptive innovation and is ready for aerospace manufacturing now, from smaller components to an entire fleet. This article highlights the challenges the aerospace industry faces during the application of AM and the top 3D printed aeronautical components. Objectify Technologies, founded in 2013 at SIIC, IIT Kanpur, has become one of India’s forerunners in the field of Additive Manufacturing / rapid prototyping in polymers as well as metal.

The aerospace industry is that industry which other industries look to see a glimpse of what’s on the horizon. The industry is one of the oldest industries to adopt cutting edge technologies and the first to bring in carbon fibre. It is also the first industry to introduce CAD/CAM processes into its design chain. There are many other examples and Additive Manufacturing (AM) is no different, with the industry capturing 12% of the total AM market.

Growing few more leaves

Aerospace innovators passively own AM beyond just prototyping and scale models and are aggressively pursuing new use cases for the technology. Some leading aerospace manufacturers are already using this technology to fabricate jigs & fixtures, production tooling and final end-use parts for lightweight wing assemblies in small aircraft and UAVs. It is evident that innovation in aerospace is accelerating, advancing frontiers of understanding at the component/product level in manufacturing operations, in comprehending supply chains and, in some cases, at the business model level. Parts can now be created with complex geometries and shapes that in many cases, are impossible to create using any other technology. Low aerospace volumes and a slimmer supply chain make AM an attractive, low cost alternative to replace conventional CNC machining and other tooling processes for smaller scale parts and finished products and assemblies.

New AM design flexibility encourages simpler, lower cost design and assembly through designing-in fairness. It poses a competitive threat for laggards wedded to status-quo methods for prototyping, tooling and custom part production, using CNC machining, aluminium casting and injection moulding.

Challenges to face

The biggest challenge the aerospace industry faces during the application of AM is the volume of construction and manufacturing large products. AM sets a very strict restriction in building large aero-components and the downside to that is that most of the aerospace components are large, especially in aircraft fleets and carriers.

But nowadays, manufacturers like General Electric have done everything in their capability to make sure that the size of the component to manufacture should not be a setback and that they are manufacturing fairly large components. This is not a very complicated obstacle that cannot be overcome. With emerging technologies and expansion to the frontier, in the coming days, not only will big manufacturers, like GE and Stratasys, dive into the challenge but every other manufacturer in the market will be able to capture its limitations.

Despite popular beliefs, the biggest obstacles in implementing the new manufacturing paradigm today are internal, based on breaking down status-quo beliefs around what’s possible and rethinking existing tooling and manufacturing methods.

Existing human processes and behaviours are hard to change however, and manufacturing without a traditional factory today is an unrealistic concept. On the contrary, we are witnessing accelerated adoption in specific applications and industries, such as aerospace and a general spread of the use of technology, as designers and engineers expand the frontier of the possible.

Unlocking investment capital and resources to adopt new design and manufacturing techniques is difficult for some aerospace OEMs and suppliers, locked into a quarterly driven revenue cycle and budgets.

Top 3D printed aeronautical components/structures

The ability to create lighter, stronger components under such low budgets has expanded the abilities of the aerospace industry to create complex components. After a thorough research, we have found the top six applications of 3D Printing in the aerospace industry.

  1. Plane seat

    A lighter plane seat has been 3D printed by Andreas Bastian, an engineer at Autodesk, which weighs 40% less (766 gm) than a conventional plane seat. He created the ceramic mould after creating the plastic mould using 3D Printing in order to obtain the final piece.

  2. Safran Helicopter engines

    Safran Helicopter launched a new range of helicopter engines last year. The Anteo-1K engines have 3D printed parts, including parts inside the combustion chamber. AM has enabled Safran to reduce production costs without compromising the engine performance. These 3D printed engines created are almost 30% more powerful than those previously manufactured. This increased performance helps helicopters in departments such as search and rescue missions.

  3. Fuselage panel of Stelia

    Stelia Aerospace changed its interest into AM to create its first 3D printed reinforced fuselage panel. It carried out the project using Wire and Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM) technology. Its one square metre demonstrator shows that AM makes it very easy and flexible to design the stiffeners of the fuselage panels, offering more design flexibilities.

  4. Pratt & Whitney engines

    Almost 12 parts of a Pratt & Whitney engine have been created using AM – engines that now equip Bombardier aircraft and carriers. These are mainly fasteners and injection nozzles, 3D printed from titanium and nickel. The manufacturer has saved almost 15 months over the entire design process and the final weight of the part has come out 50% less than the conventional. The engine manufacturer has used Electron Beam Melting (EBM) and Direct Metal Laser Sintering (DMLS) technologies.

  5. Stratasys’ drones

    Stratasys collaborated with Aurora Flight Sciences to create and advance an unmanned series of aerial vehicles with jet propulsion in the year 2015, which can fly faster than 150 miles per hour and is called the UAV. More than 75% of the vehicle’s parts have been 3D printed, manufactured through Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) technique. A lightweight but high performance material, the ULTEM 9085™ was used in this printing.

  6. Perdix drones by the US army

    The US army, in collaboration with researchers at MIT, designed ‘perdix’ drones and tested successfully. The US army is no stranger to AM, as it has previously created concrete barracks using 3D Printing. 103 drones perform collectively as one brain and don’t act individually. In order to avoid crashing, they use sensors to maintain a safe flight distance. They have the ability to jam enemy radars.


Apart from prototypes and tooling, 3D Printing produces stable end-use and durable parts, thereby bypassing the production line. Stratasys uses a series of materials, including thermoplastics, to create parts with high mechanical, chemical and thermal properties. Sybrant reported that low-volume production being a market segment hasn’t been covered well. Outsourcing moulding houses won’t accept any order under a certain number or maybe they charge a little too high to keep the profits alive and hence, in-house manufacturing made more sense.

Boeing makes aircrafts for various airlines. Even if the plane itself is evidently the same from one order to the next, the interiors and its parts vary and as a result, a particular air duct may bend to the right instead of upward. For example, Boeing doesn’t want to have to use a $40,000 tool made overseas to manufacture just 25 of these parts. This is where 3D Printing comes into play and they directly make finished multiple products for plane interiors.

The real turning point in the acknowledgement of AM was the extensive application of metal-based AM since 2011. This industrial grade AM provides a better reliability in terms of speed, cost and materials rationalisation.

Major companies in the US have subsequently realised the advantages of AM over conventional manufacturing and have been using AM to achieve supply chain efficiencies and lowered time to market, which resulted in much needed attention in policy and regulations in the US.

The future

In the aerospace industry, AM has become the oxygen for manufacturing and its applications don’t only limit to components design but also to ground support and repair.

The outcomes of acknowledgement are clear and simple – AM is accelerating change in this industry and more companies should accept and learn to leverage this technology. Whether in prototyping, tooling or short-run manufacturing, AM is essentially capable of being agile and remaining competitive in this modern changing world and technological sprint.

Courtesy: Objectify Technologies

Image Gallery

  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) created by Stratasys in 2015 using 3D Printing

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