Is additive manufacturing the answer to obsolescence in aerospace?

Posted on 6 Jul 2022 by The Manufacturer

Obsolescence is an unavoidable by-product of technological progress, but for highly-regulated industries such as aerospace, obsolescence can pose a huge problem due to compliance issues that make it hard to source alternative components. However, with developments in additive manufacturing (AM), many are wondering whether 3D printed components could provide a solution. In this article, Neil Ballinger, Head of EMEA at EU Automation, discusses the use of AM to manage obsolescence in the aerospace industry. 

The aerospace and defence industry was one of the first to adopt additive technology – thanks to the many applications of AM, the sector become one of the market’s biggest player, contributing $3.58bn in 2020.

With the growing demand for lightweight parts for aircraft engines, 3D printing provides many benefits for the aerospace industry, such as the possibility to print in a wide variety of metal powders to create hollow and complex designs. Thanks to these innovations, AM is transforming aerospace manufacturing by reducing weight and removing design constraints, therefore cutting costs, carbon emissions and development times. Given these benefits, many are wondering if it could also provide a solution to obsolescence.

Stakeholders who operate in highly regulated sectors, where upgrading to newer components means realms of paperwork and red tape, have been especially keen to explore this possibility. For example, several national authorities, including the US and the Swiss Governments, have already established research programmes to investigate the potential of AM to tackle obsolescence in the defence. Though the results are promising, there are still serious technical and bureaucratic challenges.

Copyright and regulations

The majority of parts in the aerospace industry have decades-long life cycles. However, internal components used in those systems, such as semiconductors and electronic boards, have much shorter life cycles. For these parts, aerospace manufacturers can run into difficulties sourcing, especially with increased demand amongst a supply shortage.

Implementing AM could help, but 3D printing parts using designs from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) raises copyright concerns.

Copyright and intellectual property claims could prevent the aerospace industry from progressing with AM use for obsolescence. However, new legislations rolling out in the EU and the US could soon address this issue as these countries push to become more repair-minded.

Another challenge the industry will face is whether AM components will be deemed safe for aerospace and defence purposes. Due to standards and regulations, these components would need to go through strict testing protocols and certifications to ensure component safety, repeatability and consistency.

There is some progress in this sense, such as manufacturing execution system (MES) software for AM that enables aerospace manufacturers to increase compliance with regulations like AS9100.

However, there are still many obstacles to overcome before AM can successfully manage obsolescence, which makes this approach inconvenient for the time being. This is why aerospace manufacturers might want to go the traditional way, for now, implementing a good obsolescence management plan and connecting with specialised parts suppliers, like EU Automation, to help source obsolete parts.