The Global Market Forecast 2015-2034 released by Airbus suggests that the commercial air transport sector is set to grow over the next two decades. Trends including demographics and economic growth support this prediction. New technology has helped improve aerospace manufacturers margins and allow these manufacturers to produce their planes more efficiently while reducing waste.
The commercial aircraft industry has grown 5% per year over the past 30 years. This growth is expected to double over the next decade. Growth like this will put tremendous pressure on these manufacturers to keep up with demand while also calling for a faster manufacturing process. Not only do they need to speed up their manufacturing processes, there is an overwhelming focus on producing better aircraft. One of the main concerns for airliners is increasing operation efficiency with a focus on fuel economy. A standard jet eats away 40-55% of operating expenses just by burning fuel.
The prime technology these manufacturers are turning towards is additive manufacturing. Additive manufacturing is more commonly known as 3D printing. This process constructs components from the ground up, laying down thin layers of material, either plastic or metals, until the desired components is manufactured.
Aerospace manufacturers are excited about the potential of this technology for a few different reasons.
Additive manufacturing allows manufacturers to create complex components all in one process. Because of the process by which 3D printed components are manufactured, it can eliminate the need to fasten multiple pieces together to create the end-use component. This allows manufacturers to create extremely complex components more rapidly while also dramatically decreasing the weight.
When it comes to plans, weight is everything. The less weight an aircraft has to haul up into the air, the less stress will be put on the engines, which adds up to better fuel economy and an overall more efficient aircraft. 3D printing even allows for the manufacturing of components that would not be achievable with traditional manufacturing. Conventional manufacturing usually takes a subtractive approach. Carving out the desired component out of a solid block of material. This limits the manufacturers options. To create a structurally sound component with subtractive manufacturing, a complex part might need to be fastened together from multiple pieces and a hollow structure might be unachievable. When it comes to 3D printing, components can be created in one sitting and it can be designed with CAD software in such a way where the entire internal structure can be filled with air.
3D printing was long seen as a novelty or a more efficient way to create prototypes, primarily because it was limited in regard to the materials it can use. However, there are now countless materials available for 3D printers and a host of printing methods available to achieve the desired results. Aerospace grade titanium, stainless steel, conventional steel, even gold and copper can now all be found as 3D printer friendly powders.
As more materials make their way to the market and more manufacturers begin utilizing this technology for end-use components, aerospace manufacturers will have no trouble keeping up with the booming demand for their jets. New 3D printing technology like Electron Beam Melting or Directed Energy Deposition offers manufacturers more ways to control the quality of their prints so as to be sure there’s no compromises are made in regard to the safety or structural integrity of their components.
Aerospace manufacturers have a lot of work to do and if Airbus’ Global Market Forecast 2015-2034 holds true, they’re going to stay busy for some time. Without investigating new manufacturing technology there is a chance they won’t be able to keep up with demand. Furthermore, without utilizing the unique advantages additive manufacturing has to offer, it will prove to be much more difficult to improve planes operational efficiency. More materials are available and 3D printing processes are becoming more reliable. As the aerospace industry continues to grow, 3D printing will be sue to follow.