With Industry 4.0 in full swing, additive manufacturing is becoming more popular and disruptive in a number of industries, and aerospace is no exception. Compared to other industries, aerospace is one area that focuses on low-volume production of systems that incorporate complex mechanical and electronic components.
The aerospace industry has a long history of being an early adopter and a pioneer of new technology. Additive manufacturing fits right in with this historical trend, and many leaders in the industry are going all-in on additive manufacturing. 3D printing initially had a niche role in aerospace manufacturing as a technology for rapid prototyping. However, with new advancements, it is becoming a strategic technology that is expected to generate value throughout the supply chain for companies like Airbus, GE, Boeing, and TTM. If you haven’t jumped on board, now is the time to complement or replace your existing prototyping and manufacturing processes with additive manufacturing.
The aerospace industry has been an early adopter of additive manufacturing and that is only expected to continue.
Betting on Additive Manufacturing
Why are so many prominent names in the aerospace industry placing their bets on additive manufacturing? Although the initial investment in additive manufacturing systems is a major cost driver, manufacturers can more than make up for the initial investment thanks to the increased productivity of additive manufacturing processes.
For example, additive manufacturing of electronics can reduce the lead time for a multi-layer PCB by 80% compared with conventional manufacturing processes. This may allow aerospace manufacturers to redesign an electronics component up to five more times during the product development cycle, leading to significant design and performance improvement opportunities. Additionally, incorporating ever-more additively manufactured parts in aerospace systems helps in reducing their weight, which in turn reduces fuel costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
The benefits of additive manufacturing in aerospace are more than just conjecture; they are being realized today, and the use of additive manufacturing will only increase in the future. With this in mind, let’s take a look at some key cost benefits of additive manufacturing in aerospace:
Reduced Part Counts and Increased Product Complexity
Mechanical and electrical designers normally think about their designs in terms of the limitations of available mass manufacturing processes. Designs with complex topologies might not be manufacturable unless they are broken out into several smaller pieces. In contrast, additive manufacturing is not constrained by the traditional geometries offered by subtractive manufacturing. Components can be fabricated with little to no required assembly, reducing the number of parts needed and enabling new assemblies and optimized designs.
The aerospace industry has already succeeded in additively manufacturing mechanical components with complex geometries and fewer part counts, ultimately reducing the weight of finished parts. The reduced overall weight of an aircraft reduces fuel consumption. Electronic components produced with additive manufacturing include sensor arrays, RF antennas and amplifiers, multilayer cable assemblies, and other specialized parts with a unique functionality and form factor.
Ease of Workability and Reduced Waste
Some exotic metals form the cornerstone of many aerospace applications. These materials are difficult to work with and machine in traditional processes. However, these materials are beginning to be incorporated into additive manufacturing systems.
The additive nature of 3D printing also significantly reduces waste compared to traditional subtractive processes. Although materials used in additive processes are more expensive, the reduced material waste more than compensates for the material costs. As more materials suppliers and a broader range of materials start becoming available on the market, costs are expected to decrease further while additive manufacturing applications increase going into the future.
Quick Replacement of Complex Parts
Every aircraft requires some maintenance, including replacement of mechanical and electronic components. While some replacement parts for aircraft are readily available and should be kept in stock, more complex electronic and mechanical components are not always kept in inventory and need to be periodically replaced. Ordering these parts from a traditional manufacturer can carry lead times that range from weeks to months. If you’re lucky, a manufacturer or distributor might have these parts in inventory, but this isn’t always the case.
Additive manufacturing can decrease maintenance times for a range of aerospace components and supporting electronics.
In the future, 3D printing of electronics will be used for lean manufacturing. Manufacturers, engineers, and maintenance personnel that have access to additive manufacturing systems can produce mechanical or electronics parts on-demand, eliminating the need to keep complex costly components in inventory. An additive manufacturing system is not limited by the complexity of the part or minimum order quantities. Part manufacturers can quickly fabricate individual replacement parts and rapidly ship them directly to the customer, significantly reducing lead times in the process.
Controlling Prototyping and Manufacturing Costs
As additively manufactured systems require fewer parts, fasteners, and assembly steps, they can be produced faster and at a lower cost than traditionally manufactured systems. The reduced number of assembly steps is especially important for multilayer PCBs. Traditionally manufactured multilayer PCBs require dozens of fabrication and assembly steps. Using an additive manufacturing system for multilayer PCBs effectively reduces fabrication down to a single layer-by-layer printing process.
The reduced fabrication time, assembly time, and decreased number of assembly steps allows new designs to be tested and modified quickly. Engineers and designers can “fail faster,” reducing the time required to change and optimize designs to meet performance requirements. Rapid prototyping with additive manufacturing speeds up the entire R&D process, ultimately decreasing the time to market for new electronics.
The reduced level of manufacturing complexity, as well as the hastened prototyping process, can reduce overall costs for development and fabrication of electronics for aerospace systems. Using an additive manufacturing system also facilitates the fabrication of more complex electronic components. PCBs with an odd form factor, non-traditional component assembly, printed antennas and RF components, and non-planar geometry can be printed with the right additive manufacturing system.
The Bottom Line
Industry leaders have already recognized the benefits of additive manufacturing in aerospace. Whether you work on developing new electronics or mechanical systems for the aerospace industry, additive manufacturing has something to offer everyone. Aside from its technical merits, you’ve probably noticed a common trend: complementing or replacing traditional manufacturing processes with additive manufacturing improves the bottom line by enhancing productivity, reducing waste or making entirely new types of circuit. The range of products and applications of additive manufacturing is only anticipated to expand into the future.
If you’re ready to take advantage of the benefits of additive manufacturing in aerospace and streamline production for printed electronics, the DragonFly Pro additive manufacturing system is the solution for you. The DragonFly Pro system is designed for layer-by-layer fabrication of advanced printed electronics. Designers can easily fabricate a variety of wireless, non-planar, and multilayer electronics. Read a case study or contact us today if you’re interested in learning more about the DragonFly Pro system.