Is 3D printing the future of aerospace manufacturing?

Manufacturers across the globe have been quick to add 3D printing technology to their capabilities—among them, top aerospace firms and their suppliers. Proponents of 3D printing say the process is faster, cheaper and more precise than traditional manufacturing methods. But what implications does the rapid rise of 3D printing have on the wider manufacturing industry?

Aerospace leaders invest in 3D printing

Today’s jet airliners are made up of millions of parts—four million in a single Airbus A380, six million in a Boeing 747-400. It’s not surprising, therefore, that aerospace companies are looking to 3D printing as a more efficient, less costly way to manufacture aircraft parts.

Perhaps unbeknownst to the average passenger, 3D-printed airplane parts have already taken to the skies. The Airbus A350 XWB aircraft has been called “the most 3D-printed plane in history.” Among its 3D-printed components are more than 1,000 plastic end-parts, several fuselage and engine-pylon parts, and a partially 3D-printed Rolls Royce engine.

For Airbus, 3D printing isn’t just the future—it’s the present. In early April 2016, the company struck a deal with lightweight metal manufacturer Alcoa Inc., which will supply them with 3D-printed titanium fuselage and engine-pylon parts for its commercial planes. Around the same time, the company announced the addition of a 3D printing factory to its Ludwig Bolköw Campus in Munich, Germany. 

Today’s aerospace factory floor is nothing like the hectic, noisy production facility of the past. Exploring a new aircraft in virtual reality and using advanced digital technologies on the shop floor; production lines where computer-suited personnel and robots work side by side; 3D printers producing prototypes and series components – Airbus Group is making huge inroads in this area, turning ideas into reality.

Boeing has also made 3D printing a priority, recently patenting the concept of “levitating 3D printing”, where parts hang in mid air during the printing process. The company also wants to create artificial, 3D-printed ice as a way of testing the performance of its aircraft under icy weather conditions. 

Additive vs. subtractive manufacturing

The central advantage of 3D printing over traditional manufacturing methods is its “additive” approach. Also known as Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM), 3D printing works by layering raw material—in powder form—to create three-dimensional shapes. This differs from traditional, “subtractive” methods like milling, which involve cutting, grinding or chipping away at raw material until left with the desired shape. Compared to these traditional methods, 3D printing produces far less waste and leaves less room for error.

The benefits of ALM are such that 71 percent of manufacturers say they’ve implemented the technology in some form, according to an April 2016 report from the Price Waterhouse Cooper and Manufacturing Institute. Additionally, 52 percent expect to see 3D printing used for high-volume production in the next three to five years.

Proceed with caution

Despite the many benefits of 3D printing for aerospace manufacturers, business leaders and industry experts say there are potential pitfalls to consider.

International tax expert Channing Flynn writes in the Harvard Business Review that business leaders must be prepared for 3D printing distribution “to ripple through many functions—not just product development and manufacturing, but also finance, tax, legal, human resources and IT.” He urges executives to consider whether their 3D business models could be weakened by increased tax costs.

The impact of 3D printing on intellectual property rights is another major concern. According to the PwC report, 18 percent of manufacturers view 3D printing as a threat to intellectual property.

In addition to IP piracy, manufacturers must consider what happens if the value of a product’s intellectual property surpasses its production value. As Flynn puts it, “how and where 3D IP is owned and authorized for use will be critical to business relationships and the characterization of the income derived from them.”

Ultimately, the proliferation of 3D printing within the aerospace industry isn’t probable; it’s inevitable. However, 3D business models are only beginning to take shape. The extent to which it will influence the supply chain remains to be seen. 

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