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Is Additive Manufacturing the Next Big Thing in A&D?

  • 27 September 2017
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Categories: Manufacturing

A 3d printer in progress

Additive manufacturing (AM), colloquially known as 3D printing, has been around for more than three decades, but it’s only been stealing headlines in the past few years.

“3D printed spine saves a woman from paralysis and death,” reads one headline in The Guardian. “Will We Be Eating 3D Printed Meat Next Year?” asks another headline. As manufacturers across many industries explore this exciting technology, it’s safe to assume there are many more AM headlines to come.

Right now, AM is poised to transform the aerospace and defense industry. The value of A&D products produced via additive manufacturing is expected to increase more than fourfold over the next five years, from $700 million this year to $3 billion in 2022.

This investment in AM couldn’t come at a better time. U.S. military spending is poised to surge, while air travel is expected to double by 2035, putting the number of annual air travelers at 7.2 billion. To accommodate this, aviation companies need new aircraft and new solutions — and they need them fast.

GE Goes All-in With AM

Next year, GE Aviation will unveil a propeller plane with an engine produced by AM. This engine will be faster, more fuel efficient, and cheaper than a typical jet engine. With this new design, GE is “ripping up the rulebook,” as one publication put it.

“Today, the technology has given us a high-performance, low-cost propeller plane engine,” the piece in Ozy reads. “Tomorrow, it could clean up large-scale commercial aviation dramatically.”

GE Aviation leads the pack of aircraft manufacturers investing in AM. It invested $70 million in a factory to make 3D-printed fuel nozzles, and GE has created GE Additive, an entire business arm dedicated to AM. Last year, GE bought controlling stakes in two leading manufacturers of industrial 3D printers for more than $1 billion.

There’s no question why GE is investing so heavily in AM: it’s a perfect fit with aircraft. AM is best suited to small production runs, such as those for jet engines, and AM printers are also more efficient, capable of turning out something that used to require welding 20 components together.  

AM also reduces the waste that is typically part of a conventional manufacturing process. For example, for products such as a bracket for an airplane, it is common to lose 90% of the raw material during a conventional manufacturing process. AM leaves much less waste, lowering production costs.

The propeller plane engine isn’t GE Aviation’s first foray into AM. A few years ago, GE Aviation engineers used AM to reduce the number of components in a helicopter engine from 900 to 14. The printed parts were 40% lighter and 60% cheaper—a winning combination.

There is still farther to go before AM engines are ready for large commercial aircraft. GE’s new engine is for a small propeller plane that seats eight passengers and goes on only domestic routes, such as from Chicago to Los Angeles. But it’s a start — and a precursor of what’s to come.

Last year, GE began testing the GE9X jet engine, the largest ever created. As if that wasn’t enough to distinguish it, it was also made with 3D-printed parts. It is anticipated to be the most efficient twin-engine jet when it goes into production in 2020. GE says it already has more than 700 orders for the engine.

GE is far from the only manufacturer turning to AM. Airbus has developed the first 3D-printed, metal radio-frequency filters for commercial telecommunications satellites. Among other benefits, the reduction in weight of these filters — thousands of which are needed on a satellite — reduces the hefty cost of sending them into orbit.

The writing’s on the wall. In the future, AM is going to be a huge part of increasing efficiency and cutting costs for aerospace manufacturers, and consumers stand to benefit hugely. Whether it’s a private charter plane from New York to Miami or a transatlantic flight to Europe, every aspect of air travel is going to be touched by AM.

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