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3D printing - the future of aircraft

23 April, 2019

Benjamin Stafford, materials science expert at materials search engine Matmatch, explores the future relationship of aviation and additive manufacturing.

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is not a new concept. First conceived in the late 1980s, it’s only in recent years that it has taken flight. Additive manufacturing is used in daily life, but developments are making it more accessible for other industries to use the technology, including aviation.

In 2018, German airline Lufthansa announced it was exploring additive manufacturing for aviation, having opened a specialist facility with Oerlikon to develop products suitable for production.

Traditionally aircraft parts have been machined from metal blocks, often from titanium. Machining parts in this way creates a lot of waste material and also limits the geometry of the part it is possible to create. 3D printing enables the manufacture of the same parts while vastly reducing the waste material.

Additionally, it makes completely new geometries possible. Using topology optimisation, novel designs can be printed in which the weight of the part can be reduced without compromising and sometimes even enhancing its mechanical properties.

There are other benefits to using 3D printing, such as the strain on resources being eased by creating a digital design that is then carried out by a toolless machine. This means that the time spent designing, deliberating and developing is significantly shortened.

Fuel consumption and CO2 emissions are reduced through 3D printing, due to the lighter weight of the parts. However, despite the benefits and savings of time and money, there must be confidence in the products and safety features from both industry bodies and customers.

Regulations and standards must be met by the industry bodies for production and usage of 3D printed aircraft components to be considered. For example, regulations in the UK set by the civil aviation authority (CAA), detailed in CAP733, state that aircrafts being constructed may be subject to examinations from an authorised popular flying association (PFA) inspector to monitor the build. The inspector will also conduct final inspections before flight testing, including mass and balance checks.

If the aircraft passes the assessment, it will then be granted a certificate of airworthiness that attests to the CAA being satisfied with the workmanship and materials used for construction.

Materials are a key component in the creation of an aircraft, as the weight and composition of the materials make a significant difference to the performance and efficiency of the aircraft. 3D printing is becoming possible with ever more materials, including steel, aluminium, titanium, various polymers, ceramics and even carbon. When choosing these materials, it is critical that design engineers choose the right material that meets regulation and is compatible with the necessary manufacturing processes.

In addition to Lufthansa, Boeing and Airbus are utilising 3D printing, with both businesses using AM to produce parts and pieces. In fact, over 20,000 parts on Boeing jets are currently created using the technology.

Additive manufacturing and aviation will continue to work together as new composites and technologies are tested and developed to shape the future of aviation. From the commitment and interest in the two industries working together, it is most certainly a partnership that will take off.

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