From early development to advanced applications, one industry has been pushing advancements in additive manufacturing (3D printing) from the beginning. The aerospace industry utilizes additive manufacturing (AM) across the spectrum of product development, from concept visualization to testing and final production.
Aircraft companies were early adopters of laser sintering, one of the first commercialized thermoplastic 3D printing technologies, and Direct Metal Laser Melting (DMLM), the first commercially available system for additive manufacturing of metal parts in 2002. Since then, additive metal systems have evolved to expand application possibilities and better accuracy and repeatability, leading to further use by aerospace companies
During my time at Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, I’ve seen a lot of interest in metal AM from companies not only in aircraft development but also in the private and public space sectors. The rapid adoption from these companies has led to 3D printed fuel injector nozzles, combustion liners, shrouded impellers, and many other applications I address below.
Why aerospace companies use metal AM
The reasons for early adoption are linked to the benefits for liftoff, flight, traveler comfort, and the harsh environments involved in aircraft functionality. Additive manufacturing offers functional components from complex and aerodynamic design geometries that can’t be manufactured with other methods. Functional components with complex geometries and defined aerodynamic properties can be manufactured quickly and cost effectively. Material and weight savings lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. Manufacturer-specific adaptions and small production runs are further arguments in favor of AM technology.
Additive manufacturing is considered a more streamlined manufacturing process than traditional metal manufacturing with no tooling costs and minimal setup. The costs associated with production are incurred for the parts themselves, no matter how small the batch. Design changes to the components can be implemented easily by printing one-off without incurring re-tooling costs and lead times. Aerospace companies can redesign, print, and install parts in their aircraft within days, saving time and money.
Because 3D printing builds components one layer at a time, designers can create complex geometries not possible with traditional manufacturing. Aerospace engineers take advantage of the design freedom to reimagine multiple parts as one contiguous design.