New study shows benefits of 3D printed aircraft

Posted on 5 Jun 2015 by Michael Cruickshank

A recent study undertaken by Northwestern University in the US has shown significant benefits for 3D printing in the manufacturing of aircraft.

The study, funded by the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office, shows that 3D printed planes would have considerable benefits in terms of energy efficiency and weight.

Through the use of 3D printing or additive manufacturing, the study found it was possible to create high performance parts with much lighter weights than their traditionally manufactured counterparts.

These new lightweight parts would contribute to an overall reduction in the weight of the aircraft, increasing its energy efficiency, and subsequently reducing its fuel use and carbon emissions.

In addition, due to the fact that 3D printing uses much less raw material than traditional manufacturing, this kind of waste would be significantly reduced. Furthermore, many of the pieces currently used in aircraft are based off wasteful designs due to the way they are manufactured.

“We have suboptimal designs because we’re limited by conventional manufacturing. When you can make something in layer-by-layer fashion, those constraints diminish,” explained Eric Masanet, a professor at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

While many of the major parts of an aircraft such as its wings and fuselage are unlikely to be replaced by 3D printed parts in the near term, there are substantial savings on weight that can be made by utilizing additive manufacturing for small and less crucial components.

“There are enough parts that, when replaced, could reduce the weight of the aircraft by 4 to 7 percent,” Masanet said. “And it could be even more as we move forward. This will save a lot of resources and a lot of fuel.”

Aviation industry an early adopter

The Northwestern study points out that the airline industry is already an early adopter of 3D printing technologies, making them well positioned to take advantage of the findings of the report.

Already aircraft engine manufacturer GE Aviation has been developing new engines with components made by 3D printers.

Earlier this year, the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) for the first time cleared a critical 3D printed part to fly in the new GE90-94B engine used in the Boeing 777.