One of the key strengths of additive manufacturing (AM) is that it is well suited to applications that need low volumes of high-quality parts, such as the aerospace industry. Another strength is that AM can deliver parts as needed, in less time than other manufacturing methods. And a third strength is AM’s ability to produce parts that combine multiple assemblies into one part. Thus, it’s easy to see why Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NASA, and other aerospace companies have turned to AM.
The Aerospace industry looked into AM initially for this technology’s ability to reduce the weight of parts. For aerospace, low weight directly translates into savings in a number of areas, but the most important one is fuel savings.
Additive manufacturing offers a number of benefits to the aerospace industry:
Now that additive manufacturing is another option in making parts, the inherent design constraints of other manufacturing methods don’t necessarily have to limit the design. Engineers can focus more on function than on how they will have to produce a design. Every manufacturing method has limitations, of course, but additive can deliver more design freedom to explore new geometries, to reduce component count, and to improve function—to optimize products that not only were unimaginable but unproduceable as well.
Jigs and fixtures are a major industry for additive manufacturing. Engineers in the aerospace industry take full advantage of AM’s capabilities here with custom manufacturing aids. AM cuts lead times and reduces material consumption in the production of jigs and fixtures. A number of materials prove suitable alternatives to those used by subtractive processes to make manufacturing aids. Aerospace AM users report that manufacturing aids deliver better ergonomics, eliminate manual error, and speed the delivery of parts.
— Custom cosmetic interior parts
Like the automotive industry, the aerospace industry is using AM to create custom parts for interiors and cabins of commercial and private aircraft. Parts include cosmetic features in first class cabins, display shrouds for entertainment screens, and others. The low volume of such parts makes AM a suitable solution over other manufacturing methods.
— Material choices
While plastic materials are plentiful in AM, other materials are available too. But plastic AM materials are lower in weight, and can replace a number of traditionally metal parts. These materials can be tracked and traced per aerospace requirements. Aerospace compliant plastics include nylons and many of the Ultem materials.
–The supply chain
Additive manufacturing is key to digital design and production and thus, fundamentally alters the supply chain. For aerospace, this capability enables on-demand production of parts and fast repairs. Inventory is “virtual,” eliminating storage in many cases. In addition, digital designs can be altered for new parts or custom parts. 3D scanning can create digital files for legacy aircraft.