Additive manufacturing: Huge potential, big barriers


Revolutionary potential

Paula Hay is a true believer in additive manufacturing.

“So many of the restraints we live with (in aerospace) today are based on design limitations” inherent in traditional manufacturing, she told LNC in a recent interview. Additive manufacturing can free engineers from many of those limitations, allowing them to create parts that just would not be possible today.

Already, UTAS is seeing 10% to 50% cost reductions, part counts coming down by about 75%, and 40% to 60% weight reductions. And this is with only a handful of components in development.

As more AM parts get on airplanes, these benefits will be compounded. Marketing teams from Boeing and Airbus are quick to tout fuel savings as low as 2% or 3%—and airlines pay millions of dollars for these savings. Increasing the number of AM parts could easily cut an airliner’s weight by that much.

But how long before enough 3D printed parts are flying, enough for airlines to see big benefits?

UTAS only has one part flying today, though it aims to quickly expand that number in the next few years. In September, Airbus added the first serial production AM part—a titanium bracket—to the A350.

Reliability and repetition

Additive manufacturing has to show it can produce more consistent results in terms of the material and design.

Results vary from one 3D printer to the next. The differences don’t matter for most industries, but aerospace is not most industries. Parts have to be all but identical.

“The machines, they need to be bigger so we can handle larger parts, and they need to be repeatable,” Hay said.

“We might have a great idea for a part, but if it doesn’t fit in a machine, we can’t do much with it,” she said. “Some of the benefits might be stalled until the machines catch up with the aerospace industry.”

AM machines are more consistent from one model version to the next, she said.

Early machines might have such big operating differences between two versions of the same model that they effectively were two different models. That is not a much of a concern anymore, she said.

It only takes a small change to produce two effectively different parts. Some of the answer comes from building enough experience to have the confidence and data to deliver consistent results, she said.

“When we’re running the machines, are we making sure that we’re operating them at the same speeds, the same laser powers, the same parameter settings, in order to get the same parts out?” Hay said.

Aerospace suppliers need better materials, too, for additive manufacturing. UTAS and others are working with powder suppliers to improve material quality. Powder has to have uniform size, shape and composition, Hay said. “That way when the laser goes across it, you know it is going to become what it becomes.”

There have been significant gains in powders in the past few years, she said. “I think the powder guys are starting to see how big aerospace industry is.”

The Swiss company Oerlikon, which makes powders, is putting $100m into its R&D capabilities and production capacity. The company is working with Airbus, Boeing and Lufthansa to push additive manufacturing in aerospace. Its working with Lufthansa to improve production stability and consistency.

With Boeing, it is working to develop qualification standards for AM parts. It could take several years to realize that goal, Oerlikon CEO Roland Fischer said.

Currently, the FAA certifies a specific part produced on a single machine.

“From an aerospace industry perspective, that’s crazy,” Hay said.

As the technology matures and more data is gathered, the certification process will be streamlined and stabilized, she said.

One big challenge is that unlike other manufacturing methods, AM creates the material as it creates the part. Certifying materials and certifying parts are two separate processes today.

Certainly, Airbus, Boeing and other major aerospace players are all working on establishing rational standards for AM.

“I hope we don’t end up with a Boeing way and an Airbus way, but rather an industry way,” Hay said.

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