The time of 3D printing being a hobbyist’s plaything is in the past. Not only has additive manufacturing come into its own, but it is rapidly gaining ground as a more sustainable technology than centralized systems that require shipping networks to get goods to market. In the aerospace industry, we’re seeing more use of 3D printing than in the past; for example, GE has produced a 3D-printed 1,300 HP advanced turboprop engine. But one area where 3D printing technology is expected to have the largest impact on the aerospace industry is in parts printing.
The aerospace industry was one of the first adopters of 3D printing technology, beginning in 1988, only four short years from the first patent registration for the technology. At the time, it was only used for modeling and prototypes. A little over a decade later, industry leaders started to explore the full potential of the technology.
Today, it’s clear there are a number of areas where 3D printing of service parts can benefit the aerospace industry.
Increased asset uptime
Because airline fleets are always on the go, it can be difficult to anticipate in what locations and at what times specific parts may be needed. Internet of Things (IoT) technology improves inventory tracking, but that isn’t the solution when you don’t have the right part where it’s needed. Aircraft-on-ground delays can cause serious problems in a number of areas, and 3D-printed parts help avoid this issue and improve overall fleet uptime. Personnel in the hanger can simply print a new part instead of maintaining an exhaustive inventory or hoping the part comes in quickly.
Beyond the problems of grounded assets, 3D-printed parts also reduce costs. When an asset is grounded, it can quickly become an expensive problem. A typical “B check” maintenance issue that grounds a plane has an average cost of $60,000. The crew must be moved to other aircraft or lodged locally; replacement parts need to be shipped in (if they’re not on location); fleet coordination is impacted; flight schedules are thrown off; and service-level agreement (SLA) compliance becomes an issue. And that’s before you deal with the resulting customer service issues.
In aeronautics, weight is money, and 3D-printed parts could lighten the components used in aircraft. Reducing the weight of your components means using less fuel to get off the ground. A recent contest by GE challenged designers to create an engine bracket designed for production with a 3D printer. The winning entry produced an 83.4% reduction in weight, from 2 kg to a svelte 327 grams. That may not seem like much on a 400-ton aircraft, but it’s just that much less weight to get in the air.
It’s much easier to design 3D-printed components for strength and durability versus manufacturing ease. “We get five times the durability. We have a lighter-weight fuel nozzle. And we frankly have a fuel nozzle that operates in an environment more effectively and more efficiently than previous fuel nozzles,” Greg Morris, head of GE Aviation’s additive printing division, said in an interview. The ability to design and print parts remotely makes updates to fleet assets much easier to implement.
Improved customer satisfaction
In aeronautics, customer satisfaction has a huge impact on a company’s bottom line. It’s estimated that in 2016, flight delays cost airlines $25 billion in actual expenses, and that figure does not include damage to an airline’s reputation. If an airline becomes known for flight delays and maintenance issues, it’s less likely to be used by consumers. Having 3D printing capabilities for a number of parts helps reduce flight delays and keeps cancellations to a minimum. It also helps improve overall fleet uptime and reputation for excellence.
By adding 3D printing capability, aeronautics companies can enjoy lean operations with better flexibility and resiliency. It provides a range of benefits, including avoiding aircraft-on-ground problems. By placing a 3D printer at the hanger or a nearby distribution warehouse, response time is drastically improved, costs are reduced, and excess inventory is eliminated.
Digitization and disruption require businesses to be lean and agile. This is true of all industries, including aeronautics. While 3D printing was initially used for out-of-production or slow-moving inventory parts, it’s progressing into more complex parts as the technology has improved.
As part of an overall digitization plan, 3D printing allows companies to respond faster to industry changes. Imagine a scenario where sensors in your assets sense a problem in a particular part of your aircraft. Those sensors automatically contact the arrival airport, which 3D-prints the part while the plane is still in the air. Wait time decreases and the plane gets back in the air faster. The future of aeronautics is now. Where does your business stand?
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