Use of 3D Printing Soars

With its roots in aerospace, additive manufacturing is now in the spotlight as 3D-printed components may save the day in the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies using the technology are seeing easier customization, faster time to market, and substantial cost savings in material sourcing.


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Image credit: JetX

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a transformation of sorts in manufacturing and supply chain management. One hero technology that has started to play an increasingly important role is 3D printing. Large companies, system integrators, universities, and even hobbyists are using 3D printing solutions to fill the void in parts and supplies, as shortages of medical devices and protective equipment have hit hospitals and healthcare workers around the world. Large scale 3D printing has even stepped in to provide inexpensive housing for displaced communities.

Healthcare and construction are now taking advantage of what another industry--aerospace--has known all along: 3D printing has enormous value. It can be a game-changer in industrial manufacturing.

The technology had its roots in aerospace in 2014, when an Airbus test aircraft flew with the very first 3D-printed metal part: a titanium bracket. The success of that flight proved that 3D printed components could be incorporated on commercial aircraft.


Since that first flight, the additive manufacturing (AM) market has taken off and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, research indicates the AM market will climb to $23.33 billion by 2026, driven largely by the aerospace and automotive industry segments. One survey of the aerospace and defense sector shows that 70 percent of respondents believe 3D printing has changed the way the industry thinks and operates.

The three economic drivers for AM are to lower manufacturing costs, to consolidate part design, and to decrease aircraft weight. The first is an easy entry point for AM. It allows companies to create components out of different materials, and they are no longer constrained to traditional injection molding. Intricate features and geometric shapes, such as a lattice, are difficult to create in subtractive manufacturing. With AM, engineers can incorporate those features right into the design to develop lighter, more detailed parts with less material waste. They gain freedom in design, and individual parts can be made more efficiently and effectively.

 A Transformative Technology

Beyond simply making a cheaper widget, 3D printing allows manufacturers to explore ways to consolidate widgets. This is where the power of AM shines. For example, a fan within a cooling system is comprised of as many as 73 individual parts. Through AM, this fan can be consolidated into a single part.  General Electric Aviation used AM to build a helicopter engine that consolidated 900 parts into only 16. Components that previously required assembly or welding can be 3D printed as one part, which increases durability and strength.

Additive manufacturing impacts more than just the design: it reduces inventory, labor, assembly time, and potential failure points. Because the design is a digital file, it also allows for greater collaboration and easier design delivery across borders. A company with manufacturing capabilities in several companies can share a CAD file. Now each of those locations can build the same standardized component. That affects the supply chain and can eliminate minimum purchase orders. 3D printing allows low-volume, low-scale parts to be developed more economically.

The ultimate goal in aerospace engineering is to decrease weight. According to Airbus, parts produced through additive layer manufacturing weigh up to 55 percent less and can reduce by 90 percent the raw materials used. That is a tremendous savings in manufacturing costs, and it has an equally impressive environmental impact, as every kilogram saved prevents 25 tons of carbon dioxide emissions during the lifespan of an aircraft. A Boeing 737-800 aircraft weighs about 90,000 pounds, before adding fuel and passengers. With a 55 percent weight reduction, it would tip the scales at a little more than 40,000 pounds. The lighter aircraft would require less fuel over its lifespan, making it less expensive to fly, and increasing sustainability.

Airbus: A Case Study

Airbus teamed with 3D Hubs to create a lightweight satellite component with temperature stability. Satellites require geometrically precise brackets that connect the body of the satellite with the reflectors and feeder facilities located on each end. Airbus design engineers faced two key challenges: First, they needed a bracket that would attach those components securely to the body of the satellite. Second, the bracket had to withstand intergalactic temperature fluctuations, ranging from -170°C to +100°C (-274°F to 212°F). The engineers opted for a titanium bracket, one of the few materials that could survive the temperature variations.

The resulting component highlights the advantages of 3D printing. According to 3D Hubs, they were able to build the titanium bracket with little material waste. The design was optimized to consolidate parts and to improve performance, not possible with traditional manufacturing methods. The technical advantages led to more than 20 percent savings in production. In addition, the bracket is more than 300 grams (about 10.5 oz.) lighter, which equals nearly one kilogram (more than 2 pounds) per satellite. 

3D models for airport manufacturing

A satellite frame printed in titanium. Image credit: Airbus

3D printing is used in a variety of manufacturing applications, contributing to its rapid rate of adoption. Its technical advantages have proven cost reductions, while bringing gains in terms of design flexibility, production time, and aircraft economy. Future innovations will further boost the trajectory of the additive manufacturing market. 

  • Learn more about 3D Hubs and its industrial manufacturing processes. 


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