3D printing has enabled aerospace companies to create complex components previously impossible with traditional techniques. This fosters innovation while reducing costs and turnaround times in a complex, highly-regulated environment.

Due to the typically short runs of parts, the aerospace industry is a prime candidate to benefit from 3D printing. It gives companies the flexibility to print specific aerospace parts for applications in the hundreds or thousands without costly tooling changes. Beyond part production, 3D printing improves manufacturing capabilities for tools that are needed to create those parts. It can also facilitate lightweighting efforts for aerospace structures, increasing fuel savings and reducing environmental impact.

Starting the process

How does this process get started? The approach at Materialise begins with an information sharing session between our team and the aerospace team, identifying all the applications and operations where 3D printing could offer an advantage compared to traditional manufacturing.

From there, engineers get involved to see what parts can appropriately be 3D-printed. What follows is a cost analysis to ensure that the parts identified for 3D printing will be produced more cost effectively. The more complex a part is, the more expensive traditional manufacturing becomes.

The next step is going to the aerospace organization’s factory to walk the lines to identify pain points and where 3D printing can further assist. Often, we find parts and processes such as jig and drill fixtures that can benefit from 3D printing customization.

Materialise is focused on determining the strength and functional requirements to meet the needs of the highly-regulated aerospace industry. From there, we identify parts, design them with lightweight structures, and run them through 3D printing software to optimize and prepare the files for printing. Unique to 3D printing, mesh/lattice structures allow parts to have the same strength and function with less material, reducing overall weight.

Optimized support structure design and removal processes with Materialise’s e-Stage for Metal software helped designers improve efficiency in drone manufacturing.
A cross-section shows the lattice structure within a 3D printed titanium insert for use in spacecraft, allowing for optimized strength with reduced weight.

Airworthy parts

In one example of lightweighting through 3D printing, Materialise obtained EN9100 and EASA 21G certification to deliver airworthy additive manufactured end-use parts at the end of 2015. Then we partnered with Airbus, manufacturing plastic parts for the A350 XWB which consumes 25% less fuel, due in part to 3D printed parts. Through software solutions, such as Streamics production management solution, companies can benefit from certified production workflows that are traceable and repeatable.

Another notable collaboration is with 328 Group. The organization handles the maintenance, modification, and refurbishment of its fleet of Do328 commuter airliners. In preparation to re-launch serial production of this aircraft, 328 Group works with Materialise to make plastic spare parts lighter, faster, and less expensively.

While 3D printing has entered the aerospace industry focusing on smaller-scale parts, it is possible that entire aerospace frames could be 3D printed in the future. We are already seeing this in smaller craft and drones, such as the SoleonAgro. Intended for biological pest control in agriculture, it was developed using 3D printing for rapid prototyping, testing, and design verification to reduce the cost of product development. Once designs were finalized, the company turned to Materialise to optimize files with lightweight lattice structures and prepare them for printing. This process gives Soleon the flexibility to design drones to fit various customer needs, from pest control to photography.

The SoleonAgro drone distributes pest control across fields in three different directions.

Evolving applications

As the industry continues to see the value of 3D printing for aerospace, we also expect companies to begin developing on-site 3D printing operations, which would reduce supply chain, shipping, and storage costs for parts. On-site printing capabilities could also offer real-time design, processing, trial, and implementation of customized parts.

The software and processes for 3D printing with metal are also rapidly evolving, which will have a great impact on aerospace manufacturing processes. New software, such as our e-Stage for Metal, can produce and customize drill and jig fixture parts. Design requirements for these parts change rapidly, and 3D printing allows for faster, easier design changes to reduce the need for expensive trial and error when creating tools to help companies keep up with the pace of the industry.

The next 5 to 10 years will be an exciting time to watch this collaboration of aerospace and 3D printing grow stronger. We can’t wait to see where the industry is headed.

Materialise
www.materialise.com

Soleon
www.soleon.it/en

328 Group
www.328group.eu

About the author: Bryan Crutchfield is vice president and general manager of Materialise North America. Contact Materialise USA headquarters at 734.259.6690.