3D Printing uses in Commercial and General Aviation

Published on March 28, 2017

3D Printing uses in Commercial and General Aviation

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  • 3D Printing is widely used in aviation.
  • Civilian aircraft, aero engines and general aviation are some of the applications.

The aviation industry was one of the first to look widely into 3D printing. Today we can see that this industry uses 3D printing extensively. With 3D printing you can develop parts quickly and iterate them throughout your design process. 3D printing is also a cost effective technology in producing short runs of end use parts. In aviation part run numbers are low when compared to the automobile industry for example. Reducing the overall number of parts also lets companies reduce cost and assembly. By reducing part count the need for molds, tooling and storage of these parts is also diminished. Additionally parts can be redesigned for 3D printing in order to save weight and this is critical in aircraft. Buy to Fly ratios are also significantly improved because 3D printing uses less material than other processes. The aviation industry uses 3D printing in prototyping like many other industries do. Where the aviation industry is leading others however is in the use of 3D printed parts for end use applications. Many OEMs and Tier 1 and Tier 2 aviation companies are now looking to certify more materials, processes and parts for aviation.

Civilian Aircraft

In civilian aircraft 3D printed parts are used primarily in ducts currently. These ducting parts are currently flying on several models of commercial aircraft. Boeing pioneered the use of 3D printing in civilian aviation and is using tens of thousands of 3D printed parts on civilian aircraft. ECS ducting (Environmental Control Systems) provides airflow for passengers, pressurization, heating and cooling. These ducts snake their way through the aircraft and often have to make complex twists and turns to reach their destinations. Some of these ducts become so complicated that it is impossible to make them with traditional molding processes. For these ducts 3D printing provides the ideal solution. By building up shapes layer by layer 3D printing can in a cost effective way manufacture these ducts. These are very low volume parts and the ability to make them essentially on demand is a key advantage.

Both Airbus and GE have talked about using 3D printing to make brackets in aircraft. Airbus wants to install these on next generation aircraft as well. By redesigning for 3D printing these kinds of parts could save significant weight. Airbus also tested out an idea for a 3D printed partition that saves 45% weight compared to the partitions currently in use in the A320 aircraft. This partition was made through 3D printing and generative design.

3D Printing Spare Parts

Companies are also looking to make 3D printed parts databases to produce on demand out of production parts. This would let operators more cost effectively offer parts to airliners for longer. Parts could also conceivably be printed on demand worldwide which would reduce maintenance times for aircraft. Certification is a hurdle for such an approach however and currently companies are experimenting with parts that are not critical. Things such as parts in the galley and directly surrounding the passenger are being introduced slowly. Cocktail trays and other in cabin parts are also being experimented with. The potential for this alone is huge. Delays in waiting for parts are a considerable cost to airlines. Maintaining parts globally and shipping them to where they are required to be is also a significant cost. Airbus has said that it wishes to create an out of production parts library but so far the movement in 3D printing for MRO has been slow.  

Aeroengines

GE has bought two metal 3D printing (Arcam and Concept Laser) companies and is in the process of industrializing their capability in order to at scale produce parts for itself. GE’s main application at the moment is in parts for its GEnx and CFM LEAP aeroengines. All CFM LEAP engines will be delivered with Additive Fuel nozzles that are 3D printed. These parts can be produced at low cost and lead to increased functionality for GE’s engines. GE hopes to 3D print over 100,000 end use parts by 2020. In addition to 3D printing nozzles GE is also 3D printing turbine blades for use on military aircraft. This critical part has been made through 3D printing for a number of years now and will see wider applications in the future.  GE clearly hopes to be a leader in the field and have significant advantages over competitors because it controls the OEM for the 3D printer, the power and manufacturing. Rolls Royce is also investing in 3D printing to improve its aero engines as are Pratt and Whitney and other companies in the field.

General Aviation

In General Aviation many private jets have high degrees of customization. Aircraft interiors companies work with demanding customers who wish to have everything precisely as they would like it. At the same time they have FAA guidelines and safety concerns to worry about. Many private jets are chock full of custom or unique parts. Often 3D printing is used as a solution to make these singular parts to spec. The applications vary but generally 3D printing is used often in housings, cabin interior parts and in very unique parts. If someone lets say wants a jacuzzi on board and aircraft and no one has ever made a jacuzzi of that type on the aircraft then brackets, clamps and parts to contain the jacuzzi can be 3D printed. Electrical housings for the pumps, electronics and remote control also can be made using 3D printing. It is these kinds of unique engineering projects with their unique challenges that 3D printing solves. In more prosaic examples 3D printing is used as well. If a person wants a particular speaker for example or a particular screen this housing can be 3D printed as well as the housings for ancillary electronics. In General Aviation 3D printing in plastics are used most often. Materials such as PEI (Polyether Imide) also known as Ultem from Sabic are used in the Fused Deposition Modeling technology most widely in General Aviation. Ultem is FAA FAR 25.853 compliant and inherently flame retardant.

Are you interested in exploring how 3D printing can be used in aviation? Contact us and we’ll show you the way.