The aerospace industry is highly dependent on small, precise parts being produced in low volumes. Manufacturing these parts is predictably difficult, which helps to explain why the industry is dominated by a few major players. Startups simply didn’t have the capital or resources to build parts in-house — not before metal additive manufacturing (AM) arrived.
What is Metal AM?
Additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing or AM) typically uses plastics and polymers to print components and tools. Now, objects can be printed using a variety of metal alloys. Thin layers of metal are printed on top of each other to produce complex parts with all the material advantages of metal.
These raw materials can be adapted to fit the needs of nearly any part. For instance, a machine used to melt certain material may benefit from using an alloy that provides superior heat resistance. More significantly, manufacturers can produce multi-faceted parts with precise measurements and cavities without having to go through a traditional tooling process. The science of metal AM is complex, but it boils down to perfect custom metal parts on demand.
Using Metal AM in Aerospace
The aerospace industry is in a unique position to benefit from metal AM. This technology solves some of the most persistent technical, logistical, and competitive challenges in the industry, unleashing a wave of innovation in the process. These are just some of the benefits:
- Accelerated Production – Instead of waiting for parts from specialized suppliers, aerospace companies can produce them in-house in a fraction of the time. Project timelines speed up significantly because metal AM makes it easier to prototype and develop complex aerospace parts.
- Lower Costs – Metal AM is not necessarily cheap to implement, but once the technology is in place, it can cost much less to produce parts from start to finish than it would with traditional production processes. Lower production costs will allow aerospace companies to invest more funds in R&D, and experiment with innovative part designs.
- Fewer Pieces – Metal AM can produce shapes and volumes that would be near impossible to create using traditional tooling methods, while reducing the number of components in each part. A great example is the metal, 3D-printed fuel nozzle from the LEAP jet engine – using AM, 18 different components are now condensed into one.
- Superior Parts – In addition to being more complex, parts produced with metal AM are generally higher performing than standard parts. Using AM to produce a metal part can decrease its weight while increasing its strength. For instance, the LEAP jet engine’s 3D-printed fuel nozzle uses 15% less fuel than the original model.
Is Metal AM Feasible for Aerospace Now?
The potential of metal AM in aerospace and beyond is undeniable, but realistically this technology won’t revolutionize the industry for some time. In 2016 less than 1,000 metal AM printers were sold. By 2018 the total was over 1,700, which is a lot, but not nearly enough to significantly impact the aerospace industry.
Cost is another concern. Purchasing a metal AM printer, with its supplementary equipment, and then paying for operating costs is prohibitive for many smaller companies. Costs will need to drop further before this technology is ubiquitous in aerospace manufacturing.
Waiting to adopt metal AM isn’t a bad idea, but there are ways you can start preparing your manufacturing company now to be capable of adopting AM in the coming years. because there’s a lot that aerospace companies need to do in advance of implementation. All forms of additive manufacturing depend on having copious amounts of data. As a manufacturer, you must begin integrating data from more sources if you want to build precise parts using these efficient processes — otherwise metal AM risks becoming an expensive waste.
Cre8tive Technology & Design is at the forefront of manufacturing trends, including AM and more. We help manufacturers leverage their greatest asset — their data — for the purposes of innovation and optimization. Metal AM is coming quickly to the aerospace industry. Learn what is already possible by contacting our team.