It's a technology that has uses as varied as printing burgers or even body parts. And now the aviation industry is also tapping into the awesome potential that 3D printing offers.
Aviation engineers are increasingly exploring uses for 3D technology in manufacturing aircraft parts. The technique, known also as additive manufacturing, helps to reduce the weight of the aircraft, offers greater potential for customization and increases efficiency.
According to theatlantic.com, Bastian Schaefer, an engineer with Airbus, says 3D printing can help manufacturers design plane parts that mimic structures found in the natural world. He says that rivets and hinges created from 3D printing can echo the structure of bones and skeletons to create a more sustainable and lightweight vehicle. The result: A lighter and more efficient aircraft that is cost effective as well.
Aviation history of sorts was made on October 6, when a Boeing 747 took off a runway in the Mojave Desert with a brand new engine strapped to its left wing. What made this maiden flight stand out was that the engine - LEAP - was made with 19 fuel nozzles that had been 3D-printed by a computer-guided laser from layers of metal powder.
The process of additive manufacturing varies from the traditional "subtractive" methods where the process involves removing material in crafting the final shape. By contrast, additive manufacturing involves adding thin layers of material. This results in lighter and more durable shapes. The other significant advantage for manufacturers is that there is much less wastage of material.
3D printing is also believed to have reduced the weight of Boeing’s aircraft parts by up to 20 percent. Add to this the cost savings from lower fuel requirements: a report by USAToday put this at 50 percent.
However, all this is not without its disadvantages. For one, the materials needed such as specialized composites and customized plastics are more expensive especially since traditional materials used in manufacturing, are available in bulk and hence cheaper. And given that the traditional assembly lines have been around for a while, their speed of production is another area where 3D printing will have to catch up. So the 3D printers are still being used to create parts, rather than entire aircraft.
However, the time between product design and creation has reduced considerably by allowing an engineer to design and manufacture in a single process.
Additive manufacturing currently represents only about $3 billion worth of manufacturing output. Experts predict that number will grow to $100 billion in the coming years.