Could 3D Printing Be the Future of Aircraft Manufacturing?

When we first heard of 3D printing it sounded like something out of science fiction. Imagine purchasing designs online that you could print at home. While that hasn’t eventuated yet, it has taken off in the manufacturing industry, with companies producing anything from lawnmowers to aircraft.

In 2016, Airbus 3D printed the first mini airplane, known as Thor (Test of High-tech Objectives in Reality). It was a windowless drone that weighed 21kg and was less than four metres in length. Thor was a test to determine whether 3D printing could be a part of the aircraft manufacturing industry’s future.

So can it? In this blog, we explain how 3D printing works and the benefits it can provide to manufacturers, suppliers and passengers alike.

How does 3D printing work?

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing creates an object by laying sown successive layers of material. Each of these layers can be seen as a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object. Your paper printer performs a similar cross-section when printing at home.

Just like your home printer, the 3D printer requires a digital file to replicate. This is known as a Computer Aided Design (CAD) file, which is either created from the ground up with 3D modelling software or generated with a 3D scanner.

In the aircraft manufacturing industry, both Airbus and Boeing already scan existing components of their aircrafts, such as the wings, and 3D print copies to be used on new planes or as spare parts.

What are the benefits of 3D printing?

3D printing enables manufacturers to produce complex shapes, such as the wings of an airplane, using far less material than traditional manufacturing methods. As there are no offcuts through the process, there is almost zero waste, which helps to reduce the impact on the environment.

The metal parts produced can also be 30-50% lighter due to less material being required, helping to reduce the fuel consumption of the planes. Boeing saves up to $3 million per plane thanks to 3D printing.

What does the future hold?

Australian’s civil aviation sector contributed a total of 17.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in 2011. As air traffic is expected to double in the next 20 years, a solution to the aviation industry’s environmental impact is vital.

Some experts believe that we could printing spare parts at airports by 2030, others believe it could be entire planes! Whatever the case may be, the reduced manufacturing waste and the lower fuel consumption could be the answer we need to reduce carbon emissions and keep prices down for future passengers.