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The Aerospace Sector Uses 3D Printing To Improve Efficiency

Since 3D printing inception in the late 80s, the aerospace industry has been developing exceptional solutions for traditional limitations. Nowadays 16% of 3D printing revenues come from aerospace, this says a lot about how impactful it is as a feat …

Alejandro Auerbach

June 1, 2020

Since 3D printing inception in the late 80s, the aerospace industry has been developing exceptional solutions for traditional limitations. Nowadays 16% of 3D printing revenues come from aerospace, this says a lot about how impactful it is as a feat of engineering. Let’s check the main aspects regarding additive manufacturing impact into aerospace.

Challenging Costs for Aerospace Production

Aerospace, as an industry with strict security protocols, requires huge investments in quality. As a stage for design workflows, prototyping is fundamental for aerospace development. It is the way to rapidly visualize and test a functional design before investing in costly manufacturing processes. 3D printing is ideal for it since it can rapidly produce a customized model for low costs.

Starting a traditional manufacturing line for mass production is very costly, but even then, it works very well for high volumes. On the contrary, aerospace works with low quantities, so this has been an issue. Thankfully, additive manufacturing is much more affordable and, therefore offers much more design freedom.

Tooling Solutions

Standard manufacturing methods used for aerospace are machining, forming, injection molding, welding, grinding and thermoforming. Before building a production part, tooling parts must go through customization for each requirement and change in the design.

Printing jigs and fixtures is a huge relief for this, as they are applied for machining, positioning, holding assemblies, prototyping and testing, while being strong enough to support big loads. The additive manufacturing solution for this is printing special composites, which are harder and lighter than aluminum.

Moreover, having fast jigs and fixtures relieves a lot of time and costs, and allows customization in place. Furthermore, resistant and easily replaceable parts for forming processes and with good enough surfaces for mold making can be made. Even parts used for thermoforming can withstand high heats. Overall, having in-house printed tooling parts has at least reduced costs by 65% and saved months of work.

Markforged CMM Fixture

Digital Storage

Since all you need to print a part is a CAD file a printer and the material, storage becomes something less needed. This simplifies greatly on inventory and supply chain management, making production extra efficient.

With additive manufacturing, production is right on the place, allowing to make changes and customizable replacements in a short span of time. 3D models can be easy to share, resulting in excellent and immediate communication regarding changes in design and fabrication processes.

Composite Parts

One of the main concerns for aircraft design is weight reduction, every kilogram counts. With just a small reduction in net weight, fuel consumption improves greatly. With that said, every improvement results in longer flights at lower costs for aircrafts, also reducing environmental impact.  

For many years, Stratasys was the pioneer for engineering additive manufacturing integration into aerospace, by means of developing ways to print composites with high-performance properties. As a result of many years of work with companies like Boeing and Airbus, many options of composites like ULTEM 9085, ULTEM 1010, ASA, ABS-M30, carbon fiber nylon 12 were developed.

The method of choice is FDM, ideal for making composite parts with specialized filaments. Also, selective laser sintering (SLS) is a good alternative, taking into account it’s wide compatibility with materials and great resulting performance.

Not just tooling parts and prototype making is possible with composites. In fact, certified end-use parts like ducting, tanks, control surfaces and enclosures are also achievable. Even some small UAVs and drones are almost entirely built with 3D printed parts.

Composite properties can satisfy specific requirements like toughness, hardness, elasticity, thermal and electrical insulation and flame resistance while remaining lightweight. This could mean manufacturing more efficiently, with more design freedom and taking the fact that parts can be stronger and lighter than aluminum, which is one of the most used materials in aerospace.

With this, engineers are hoping to gradually substitute aluminium with composites. To implement this change, there are still many challenges to face. For instance, the limitation 3D printers have for printing big parts like fuselage structures.

Aerospace Additive Areas
Diagram showing where Additive Manufacturing Can be used on Aircraft

Design Freedom for Aerospace

One big advantage that 3D printing has over other manufacturing methods is freedom of design, and this is something crucial for aerospace. As said before, aircraft design is limited by many constraints related to costly production lines.

Moreover, geometric complexity is something common that is not that easy to deal with conventional means. However, additive manufacturing has softened said limitations by easily printing parts with smooth and complex shapes while maintaining a nice surface finish. With lowered costs on tooling production, there’s much more freedom on customization and iterations on design are faster than ever.

Producing complex geometries provide more possibilities on consolidating assemblies, hence designs require fewer components and assembly lines become more efficient. This can be witnessed on a fuselage panel designed by Stelia, where stiffeners are already integrated into the part, saving the need for machining and welding.

In a matter of weight reduction, topology optimization is an innovative solution for material rearrangement. This design method uses software calculations, resulting in complex designs that use the less amount of mass possible, while maintaining functionality. The difficulties with this are manufacturing limitations, leading to more design constraints. But now that 3D printing is a reality, this is not a problem anymore.

Metal Parts

Some components, like brackets and engine parts, are subject to huge mechanical and thermal loads. For these cases, part’s materials must be exceptionally tough like high-performance steels and titanium. Thankfully engineers have developed functional designs that can be made through additive manufacturing.

For example, GE specializes in developing brackets with optimized designs for printings with less material waste possible. The best printers for this work are the SLM/DMLS, which use a powerful laser to melt metal powder. Other alternatives for this technology are electron beam melting (EBM)(which is faster) or binder jetting (which is less costly).

Other Uses of Additive Manufacturing for Aerospace

Other 3D printing technologies like SLA and Material Jetting (MJ) can have a great impact on many applications. For example, cabin parts like doors, seats, knobs and console accessories are possible to make with standard resins, resulting in highly detailed parts. Also, during manufacturing processes, these technologies are ideal for printing patterns for casting molds.

High-Performance Manufacturing on your Desktop

Markforged is a fast-growing startup company that specializes in developing 3D Printers for high-performance engineering applications. They have innovated qualified FDMs that print industrial level composite and steel parts. Some examples of unique filaments developed by Markforged are:

Onyx: A mix of nylon and carbon fiber. It works mainly as a thermoplastic matrix for composites. It can be reinforced with other materials.

Carbon Fibre: Very strong, yet very lightweight.

Fiberglass: A strong material that works best as reinforcement.

Kevlar: Strong and exceedingly ductile. Perfect for constant dynamic loads.

Markforged industrial printers are highly affordable machines for industrial uses, but most importantly, this technology is a possibility for their desktop models. Now aerospace applications are possible for much smaller budgets and, as a consequence, a form of democratization for entrepreneurs ready to innovate in this area.

To summarize, additive manufacturing has proven to be exceptional as a technology for improving in aerospace applications, making it more efficient and reachable than ever.

Solid Print3D are here to help you make the right decision with your next 3D Printer purchase. For more information, please call Solid Print3D on 01926 333 777 or email on

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