Boeing shows off new Additive Manufacturing facility, a key to future aerospace

By Scott Hamilton

Sept. 28, 2022, © Leeham News: Boeing last week officially celebrated the opening of its Boeing Additive Manufacturing plant (BAM) in the small suburb of Algona (WA), east of Tacoma.

BAM opened just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. But ceremonies were postponed until now.

Additive manufacturing (AM) is not new to Boeing. It’s been doing AM in various forms for 30 years. But increasingly, companies are turning to AM to reduce costs and production time. Also known as 3D printing, companies are using AM for tooling, parts, and small components from civil and commercial aviation to defense and space programs. Parts are used on airplanes, drones, and spacecraft.

Many homes and non-aerospace businesses have 3D printers. Some are for business and others are for hobbyists. As part of a media and VIP tour last week, guests received gifts of two small airplanes created by 3D printing, one metal, and one plastic (plus a box of two chocolates, not made by AM, but the real thing).

Two model airplanes created by 3D printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing. Boeing printed these at its new facility in Algona (WA). Photo: Leeham News.

Cost, Timing and Parts

Shifting from traditional production methods is important for manufacturers and their supply chains, regardless of the industry. Melissa Orme, vice president of Additive Manufacturing for Boeing, declined to provide a general guideline about cost savings using AM. But a display board later in the tour, illustrating winglet production for the 737, gave a clue.

Additive Manufacturing cuts time, costs and eliminates parts. Boeing and others are increasingly turning to AM for improved production efficiency. Photo: Leeham News. (c) Boeing.

The time required to fabricate winglet components at an outside supplier meant a six-week lead time. Printing the part in-house requires 41 hours and postproduction time another 85 hours, or slightly more than half the time. The “traditional” manufacturing cost was $50,000 to $60,000. AM cost is about $40,000, a reduction of 25%-50%.

Orme said cost reduction depends on the application. But she added that a key benefit is the elimination of parts. “I like to say, how many parts are we eliminating? The value is we don’t have just a difference in cost. Look at it holistically. If we are able to eliminate 30,000 fasteners and other parts, and all the costs that go with that, that’s a huge saving.”

Regulatory approval

Although Boeing has been doing AM for 30 years, so much of it is new that regulatory approval is required along the way. Given the overhang of the MAX grounding and poor relations with the Federal Aviation Administration coming out of this crisis, the question arises: how smoothly is FAA approval going for AM?

Orme said that with any new technology, data must be accumulated and analyzed. “We don’t have that luxury of seven decades of data like castings. The challenge is really amassing the data which provides that level of comfort. We have a lot of testing. We have a good relationship with the FAA and other regulators that we work with.”

Boeing’s 30 years of AM production started with tooling, followed by polymer (plastics). Certification of the latter is a different process than the former, Orme said. Using AM for metals is another certification process. Parts require still another modality and certification process. Use of powders is new, requiring still more process and review.

“The FAA wants to know how we’re testing,” Orme said. “They want to be present. They want to be part of the process, and they are.”

Next Boeing Airplane

Throughout Boeing’s oft-delayed path to a new airplane, variously known as the Middle of the Market aircraft (MOM) or the New Midmarket Airplane (NMA), advanced production was a key component of developing the Next Boeing Airplane (NBA). Is the BAM a key component for the NBA? Orme punted the question to corporate communications.

“It’s a technology that the company has invested in as a priority,” spokesman Gary Wicks said. “This is evident about how the company feels about this technology and how it helps us drive forward.”

The scale at the BAM is small, in the context of a manufacturing revolution, for the NBA, whatever it is. Boeing wants to diversify from costly, time-consuming autoclaves (something then BCA CEO Scott Carson said even in the early days of the 787 production). But cutting weight, parts, production time and cost wherever possible clearly is important to the business plan for the NBA.

Boeing is using AM parts for doors on 777s, internal parts on the spacecraft Starliner and winglets on 737s, among other things.

This duct is for the Starliner space capsule. It once was made in metal but now is made with polymer (plastic), cutting weeks off the production time. It’s much lighter, always a consideration for space travel. Photo: Leeham News.

The BAM is also making a big section for the WISK Advanced Air Mobility vehicle in which Boeing has invested $450m. When finished, the 12-foot section is part of the passenger compartment.

This component is being made for the WISK Advance Air Mobility vehicle prototype, a program in which Boeing has a $450m investment. The component is a prototype tool printed in three sections designed to hold a molded part similar to the Wisk passenger compartment during trimming and processing in the factory.  Photo: Leeham News.

All this experience and investment will benefit the NBA. The question remains, just how much of the NBA will rely on AM.

47 Comments on “Boeing shows off new Additive Manufacturing facility, a key to future aerospace

  1. I’d be surprised if that last photo had anything in it that will fly. It looks like a Thermwood LSAM station for making a twelve foot long tool for molding the passenger compartment.

  2. AM-methods are one way to build parts, especially prototypes. However it is currently overhyped and you can see picture of the planes where the limits are. If we are not talking about exhaust tubes and other plastics it must be finished using machining in 90+ of applications, because the overall geometrie ist much less predictable and accurate than e. g. in forming or casting. Some parts take days to be “printed”. In many cases, your only faster if you produce one or a few parts, but not many.

    • Also: post-treatments such as annealing will still be required for many parts…thus reducing the relative cost savings involved in 3D printing.

      Next up: any studies on metal fatigue in 3D-printed parts? Low-temperature brittleness? Polymer de-crosslinking along lamination interfaces in plastic parts?

      • Things change: take automotive camshafts.
        used to be a forging that needed a long string off processing steps towards the final product ( including some refixing of deformation introduced by process steps )

        today it is a iron precision cast item that has 2 further production steps. TIG meltup of the cam ramps ( creating ledeburite structure) and a final grinding to shape.

        Take Titanium: forging titanium sponge into nonporous metal stock was a PITA.
        Today you grind it to dust and use it for 3D printing 🙂

  3. Pic: Two model airplanes created by 3D printing,

    That appears to be the worst 3D AM samples I’ve ever seen.

    Boeing should buy ready made from Alibaba.
    much higher quality.
    Couple of years ago Deutsche Bahn ( most backward, conservative entity around here ) has changed over to procuring accessory part for older railway cars via 3D print service.
    so what is new here?

    • And Spacex is making 3d printed rocket engines (Draco)…

      Boeings presentation of AM looks more problematic than that is looks great. I hope it’s just a perception problem and Boeing at the top of the AM field.

    • Agreed that the models are hideous. Seems like shooting yourself in the foot to present garbage like that.

      Clearly 3D makes better items by large exponentials. Truly weird.

  4. Just another puff piece about Boeing and once again hearing about this ‘NMA’ or ‘NBA’ whatever.
    > Is the BAM a key component for the NBA? Orme punted the question to corporate communications.<
    I think it will but extremely limited.

    Does AM have a place in aerospace, most definitely, does it have a place with critical to airworthiness parts? Time will tell.

    It’s good that regulatory was mentioned because that’s where all this is headed and for now they have no idea since there’s no certification rules outlined for AM.
    Yes, those models are hideous, good grief.

          • BA stock plummeting again today: it’s now down more than 70% from its high on March 1, 2019!

          • -> Investors are growing more concerned about Boeing’s struggles to fulfill military contracts, especially given the billions of dollars in charges the company has recorded for cost overruns on programs such as the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker and new Air Force One.

            “The commercial aircraft side of Boeing continues to garner the most attention, but we are actually more concerned about the financial risk from the swathe of fixed-price development contracts in Boeing Defense,” Vertical Research Partners analyst Robert Stallard said in a client note before the GAO report was published. Boeing faces a “risk of significant additional charges,” he said.

          • Here’s more on the “scathing FAA letter” alluded to above by @Pedro:

            “The FAA told Boeing to turn in all remaining System Safety Assessments (SSAs) by mid-September “if the company intends to meet its project plan of completing certification work (and receiving FAA approval for this airplane) by December.”

            “Liu said as of September 15, “just under 10% of the SSAs have been accepted by the FAA and another 70% of these documents are in various stages of review and revision.”

            “The FAA added in the that “most concerning, however, is that Boeing has yet to provide an initial submittal for six of the outstanding SSAs.”

            “It said it expects “many of these documents will take significant time to review due to their complexity and bearing on the overall safety of the new aircraft.”

            “Work must be completed deliberately and in such a way that an arbitrary calendar date does not become the driving factor,” Liu wrote.”


            Looks like “a certain company” still has a rather cavalier attitude to safety…

          • @Bryce

            I don’t accept FAA is to blame here (bad relationship etc blah blah blah). It’s BA who can’t deliver.

            Don’t forget Calhoun said on Sept 15 he expects the MAX 7 to be certified before Dec 31.

            Is he clueless or is he poorly informed (by incompetent guys from BCA) or is he pressuring the FAA?? Food for thought.

            BA has been promising WN the MAX 7 since 2021, always take their EIS, production ramp or delivery rate with a (huge) grain of salt. And suppliers know and plan accordingly.

            BTW, does the AM cost in the article ($40k) include RM and DL only? How about direct and indirect OH like depr., plant and other cost allocated etc??

          • Aircraft parts output is being grounded by worker shortages

            -> Rising interest rates and mounting economic uncertainty are making companies wary about ramping up capacity, given concerns that demand could collapse

  5. This is a priority for GE-Boeing executive management cause they only want to make planes cheaper, not better. (Or should I say, cheaper IS better.)
    Anyhow, just waiting for the day some 25 year old business consultant makes a slick PowerPoint proving that they can cut production cost by 90% if they create a 3d printer big enough to print entire fuselage sections as one integral part….then the fun will really start.
    Impossible you say….well yes, to those who believe in the laws of physics…but these people follow a much more sacred code:
    The laws of finance.

    • Sorry you are 15 years out of date.
      The carbon fiber fuelage manufacturing IS an additive process already.
      The tape is 0.7mm or so thick and layers are added plus some other stuff….

      • When you debated this subject a few months ago with @Uwe, you propounded that carbon fiber fuselage manufacturing was *not* an example of additive manufacturing…

      • Well, my comment was not really about technology, it was about the inability of Boeing executive management to accurately assess new technologies and implement them in complex programs. On the 787 it was the global supply chain and perhaps the huge use of composites. On Calhoun’s imaginary NMA it will be his magical digital design and assembly and perhaps AM as well.
        No one can see the future, but based on the GE-McD Boeing history I would “go short” on the ability of executive management to execute such things successfully.
        This comment is as relevant today as it was 15 years ago.

        • Cargo Cultish.
          But see: they are mostly addressing other islanders.
          Closed/gated community.
          ( in a way the blind talking colors 🙂

      • “You are assuming that the jobs are leaving US”

        He posted a link, without further comment. How do you know what he’s “assuming”?

        Also, doesn’t “outsourcing to India” clearly indicate that the work in question won’t be done in the US?

      • Now that the base concept is certified, I think we can expect a steady stream of incremental improvements and replacements of western parts.

        Of course, the BA back office will tell us that COMAC couldn’t possibly procure such alternative parts, but we’ll see soon enough 😏

        • Bloomberg:
          -> A spokeswoman for the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said that EASA has been working for several years with Comac and the Chinese regulator

  6. I love the potential of AM with metals.
    The truth is that today there is no one who can tell you in advance of making a part what the microstructure, strength, modulus, impact toughness, or any other property will be. And they can’t tell you how much it will vary in different orientations.
    Now if you at running AM, followed by HIP and HT you will have a part at least as good as a casting. and likely finer grain and cleaner so it may be better.
    But without the secondary processing it is a total crap shoot.
    I know the qualification process with MMPDS properties. We are likely still at least 5 years from a listed AM material.
    Now if you want to take a complicated assembly of heavily machined parts that currently are over designed by 40x and redesign as AM eliminating a lot of machining, assembly and weight that is fine. Your AM part will still be over designed 20x and it will look like you are a genius.

    • Yes, well, perhaps the new rookie hires at BA are unfamiliar with such “nuisance” technical details?
      Or perhaps the whole purpose of this AM announcement was to try to wow investors?

      • @Bryce

        Regarding BA’s so called recruitment drive, how many are needed to back fill the expected spike in retirement caused by the lump sum pension calculation??

  7. Boeing already had a 2 year waiver from when the legislation was passed [ Dec 2020 ‘Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act ‘]
    no reason not to get a second one for the same reasons.

    There is even more new rules proposed for the near future

    • Waivers are intended to be exceptional: when they become back-to-back, they make a farce of the underlying law.

      The legislation in question was born in reaction to 5 crashes in which the outdated 737 CAS was implicated as a contributing cause…so BA is lucky to have gotten the original 2-year grace period at all.

  8. -> “Is the Max good enough? How can an airframe designed in the late 1960s compete with current technology and materials science? How can the “greatest airplane company” still be selling this product?”
    “Isn’t this like taking a car from the 1960s and putting a new engine and partially new dash board in it? Is this what the customer really wants?”
    ~ Bank of America analyst Ron Epstein

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