3-D printing is the latest, most fascinating crossover from the industrial research lab to consumer use, because, well, it’s cool. It’s doing everything from creating better prosthetic limbs to customizing your cellphone to, controversially, making metal-detector-impervious automatic weapons in basements. But the technology has been seriously employed in the aviation, aerospace and defense industries for some time now, and we’re going to see it marketed as an important new part of the products we fly.
It’s popularly known as 3-D printing. And nearly everybody’s seen at least a video, if not a live demonstration of a machine cutting from a plastic block some trivial three-dimensional object displayed on a computer. But the commercial origins are 30 years old. And in current industry, 3-D printing is just a part of a larger process, along with additive layer manufacturing (ALM). The reverse process of computer-aided milling, ALM uses any material that can be layered to make parts that operate under genuine stress conditions. According to a recent article of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), while ALM manufacturing is catching on globally, U.S. aerospace is running with it.
ALM has been great for forming either metals or composites into complex shapes, such as aircraft ventilation. Boeing started with air ducts for the F-18 around 13 years ago and has expanded the use of ALM to the 787 for non-critical parts. But Pratt & Whitney has reached what IMechE calls a “critical milestone” with its PurePower® PW1000G Geared Turbofan™ engines. Bombardier’s new CSeries will soon be the first of many passenger planes to depend on the new engine, which is also the first to employ ALM-manufactured engine-critical parts.
Among the many advantages ALM and the rapid prototyping allowed by 3-D technology bring to engine and aircraft manufacture are two bigs: cost reduction and shorter production time. These have major implications for both B2B sales and consumer goodwill. We’ll see the wait to get an airplane on the market shrink along with the weight. Fuel costs will go down. The environment will benefit, operating costs will ease, and U.S. companies investing in the research – and then realizing it in three dimensions – will create jobs, layering on completely new technologies and building up cottage industries.
The National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR) at Wichita State University detected the trend early on and instituted 3-D technologies as key components in its training and research, with a lot of support from local major aerospace manufacturers. At the NIAR labs, you’ll see the next generation of AA&D technologists literally at the cutting edge of ALM and 3-D printing. Again, we’re watching the industry reinvent itself. In 3-D. And that’s really cool.