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3D printing is ideal for the aerospace industry which is constantly looking for ways to save money, reduce weight and increase innovation. Since 3D printing is additive, builds the component layer by layer, less raw material is used. With traditional manufacturing, subtractive, material is removed resulting in a lot of wasted material. Since many aerospace-grade materials are expensive the cost savings of using additive manufacturing is significant. In addition complex parts can be designed and fabricated that wouldn't be possible with traditional manufacturing. Often these complex designs allow the part to be lighter than otherwise possible. Reduction in weight is important in aerospace as less weight results in fuel savings.
The aerospace industry is already leading 3D printing growth. Boeing's 787 Dreamliner currently includes about thirty 3D printed non-critical parts. United Technologies jet engine division, Pratt and Whitney, has 25 components in its latest engine that are 3D printed. Some are simple brackets but others are more complicated components including some in the engine's air pathway. Airbus has 3D printed components on its A380 that are stronger and lighter than the same parts produced by traditional methods. Lockheed Martin uses 3D printed parts in satellite manufacturing including a dozen 3D printed brackets on a spacecraft heading to Jupiter.
While aerospace has already embraced 3D printing, growth opportunities exist. Airbus is exploring the option of using 3D printing to fabricate spare parts on demand. Since 3D printing doesn't require tooling it can be used to produce replacement parts that are no longer being manufactured.
Development of 3D printers capable of producing large scale parts is also desired. Lockheed Martin is currently working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to scale up to 60-100 feet in size with the goal of printing wings for unmanned aircraft. Since 3D printing involves heating of the material the challenge is that the large materials with varying thicknesses warp when cooling. For this reason advancement in materials is needed to progress with large scale printing.
The future of aerospace includes 3D printing. Aerospace competitors have already found 3D printing useful in reducing cost and increasing innovation. Weight reductions can be realized with complex designs that traditional manufacturing can't achieve. 3D printing large scale parts will be the future of aeropace.