Additive manufacturing improving efficiency in aerospace industry

Additive manufacturing is far from a new trend in any industry, but as technology progresses and processes are streamlined, it is reaching new heights of popularity in some major sectors. One of these areas is the aerospace and defence industry, which is increasingly using additive manufacturing to reduce material costs, decrease labour expenses and boost the development of complex and tailored parts.  

The aerospace and defence sector was an early adopter of this technology, with reports tracing the use of additive manufacturing back through to 1988, according to the Deloitte University Press. Since then, additive manufacturing has become ever more popular across other industries, while aerospace and defence companies contributed around 10 per cent of the technology's global US$2.2 billion revenue in 2012.

So why is additive manufacturing so important to the aerospace and defence industry, and what benefits could we see in the future as the technology progresses?

What is additive manufacturing?

To help understand the trend, it pays to know the technology. Known in consumer circles as 3​-D printing, additive manufacturing is a technique that involves building objects layer by layer using materials such as polymers, metals and composites.

Traditional manufacturing processes are more often subtractive, which means machines and manufacturers need to take material away in order to form the shapes required for assembly. Unfortunately, this can commonly lead to waste as scrap materials are discarded. And in the aerospace and defence industry, which regularly uses expensive materials such as titanium, this can be a significant cost.

Additive manufacturing, on the other hand, is a process of fusing layers of a chosen material together to build the specific design created on a computer or relevant system. Manufacturers can then print parts as one single object, rather than having to compile a number of parts created through traditional systems.

It also means that parts can be developed with minimal waste, providing clear benefits for a costly manufacturing business.

In the past, additive technology was largely geared toward prototyping and design applications. However, as the process developed over recent years, this technology has found success in end-part production, driven by the numerous advantages it can provide for companies willing to invest in additive manufacturing.

What are the current uses of additive manufacturing?

Businesses in the aerospace and defence industry are at different stages of additive manufacturing adoption, with some companies already fully involved with the technology and others sceptical of the potential benefits.

The most common uses of the process include:

  • Modelling concepts
  • Printing low-volume complex parts
  • Developing replacement parts
  • Creating specialised parts tailored to customer requests
  • Printing structures using lightweight and high-strength materials
  • Manufacturing parts with minimal waste

While these are the more popular forms of additive manufacturing, it is by no means an exhaustive list, with many companies finding unique and innovative ways to utilise the technology.

What are the benefits of additive manufacturing? 

There are several reasons why companies are utilising additive manufacturing technology to such a high degree. These benefits include:

  • Flexibility – to create complex parts that may be difficult to develop in traditional processes
  • Weight reduction – building parts with internal cavities and lattice structures that minimise weight without compromising integrity
  • Minimising waste – producing less scrap than traditional processes
  • Reducing time to market – developing new and existing products in less time to ensure customer requests are fulfilled at a competitive pace and to a high standard

Deloitte reports that when aerospace and defence organisations make the switch from traditional manufacturing to additive manufacturing, they could see time savings in prototyping up to 75 per cent, depending on the conventional techniques used prior.

The potential of additive manufacturing in aerospace and defence

While additive manufacturing is already a strong contender in the aerospace and defence industry, there is still plenty of room for improvement and continued developments.

While it is difficult to predict where this technology will take the industry into the future, Deloitte has outlined the potential for further uses and efficiencies in the aerospace sector.

One such move could be embedding electronics created through additive manufacturing directly onto parts during printing. As the technology develops and more becomes possible, it seems likely that more complex objects and larger parts will be created through this process – offering increased streamlining and more intensive capabilities. 

Deloitte predicts this will ultimately impact a number of areas along the supply chain, including the creation of products that break existing designs and expectations, and meet unique customer requirements.

With a bright future forecast for additive manufacturing in the aerospace and defence industry, it will be interesting to see where this technology takes the sector as companies seek further efficiencies and innovations.

Designing or manufacturing for the aerospace and defence industry? Contact us at SOLIDWORKS to see how we can help inspire engineering innovation and improve every aspect of your product development