Any highly regulated industry carries many regulatory, quality, and security challenges, especially for product designers. Defense and aerospace companies know this all too well, but they face particular design and production challenges that are not seen in other highly regulated industries. Additive manufacturing for defense and aerospace companies provides several important benefits that can help these organizations stay compliant, secure their intellectual property, and reduce production costs.
Additively manufactured parts are already being used in jet engines.
5 Benefits of Additive Manufacturing for Defense and Aerospace
Additive manufacturing technologies and processes are normally associated with mechanical products, and these systems are already being used in the aerospace industry to produce parts for commercial aircraft and jet engine parts. However, innovation in scalable deposition and curing processes has enabled additive manufacturing of fully functional electronics.
According to a report from Research and Markets, the 3D printing market for global aerospace and defense is forecasted to grow from $1.56 billion today to $5.9 billion by 2026. The benefits presented below apply to products in both areas. You can expect the range of additively manufacturable products to expand further as the number of useful materials, processes, and systems continue to grow.
1. High-Complexity, Low-Volume Manufacturing with a Fixed Cost Structure
Additive manufacturing systems are also unique compared to subtractive manufacturing in that the cost structure is nearly complexity-agnostic. In other words, the costs required to produce a particular part are much less dependent on complexity than conventional methods.
For products that require no post-processing steps, such as PCBs printed with an inkjet deposition process, the costs involved are completely independent of complexity. Instead, the primary cost driver to produce complex mechanical parts and electronic devices depends on the weight of the materials used for production. The time required to additively manufacture a part is also independent of the part’s complexity and is highly predictable, which is simply not possible with subtractive processes
As was noted above, additive manufacturing systems can be used to produce a single part with lower weight than the same part produced from separate pieces. This eliminates assembly steps and post-processing steps that are normally required with electrical and mechanical products. Although the up-front materials costs can be high, additive systems have over 90% less waste than subtractive processes. As a result, the costs involved in additive manufacturing are competitive to those incurred in subtractive manufacturing with lower total production time. Furthermore, as 3D printed components are usually lighter than those made using existing manufacturing methods, they improve fuel efficiency which means lower costs and fewer emissions, which reduces the impact on the environment.
Because the cost per part produced with subtractive processes generally falls with the number of units, a subtractive process is ideal when you are manufacturing simpler products at a high volume. In contrast, from a cost perspective, additive systems are ideal for manufacturing highly complex mechanical and electrical devices with lower volume. Bringing these manufacturing capabilities in-house also allows you to take control over product quality and avoid the lead times incurred with outsourced manufacturing.
2. In-House Production of Individual Parts
Bringing manufacturing capabilities in-house allows product designers to quickly produce and test a single prototype part during development. Rather than waiting until a design is finished to produce a prototype, designers can produce prototypes throughout the design process and test them immediately. Because the lead times for producing electronic or mechanical products with an additive manufacturing system can be reduced to a matter of days or hours, product designers can quickly test their new designs in-house and determine necessary redesigns. This shortens the product development cycle and can help reduce the extent of any required redesigns.
Additive manufacturing also aids in periodic or emergency maintenance of mission-critical systems. The ability to produce a single part in a matter of hours allows an older aircraft or another system to be quickly repaired with a higher quality replacement part. This is especially important for legacy systems, as replacement parts may not be available, or replacement parts may not exist. Using an additive manufacturing system to produce replacement parts on demand means inventory levels can be kept to a minimum and eliminates the need to wait for replacement parts to be shipped to their location. This can help maintenance teams bring these systems back online quickly providing a cost-effective, reliable and safe method to minimize downtime and keep planes in the air.
3. Reduced Weight Through Part Consolidation and Simplification
I the realm of mechanical parts, the aerospace industry is always interested in reducing the weight of aircraft because this provides fuel savings and reduces the cost of raw materials. Parts developed for additive manufacturing can be designed as a single, solid piece, rather than from multiple pieces that must be produced separately and assembled.
This consolidation and simplification of multiple components as a single part eliminates assembly steps and the overall number of parts. With mechanical parts, this also eliminates the use of fasteners within a part. These factors provide additively manufactured mechanical parts with reduced weight and increased strength.
3D printed metal parts.
4. Intellectual Property Security
Rather than sending complex parts or sensitive designs to a contract manufacturer, you can take full control over the security of your manufacturing assets and product designs. This is especially important in the defense industry, where an exposed design could put lives in jeopardy. Keeping these manufacturing capabilities for high-complexity, low-volume designs in-house protects your intellectual property because you won’t be sending your designs to an external manufacturer.
5. Physical Layer Security
Software security is an important issue, but physical layer security for electronics is extremely important for defense systems. Bringing manufacturing capabilities in-house also provides electronics designers with the opportunity to implement unique physical layer security measures. This is quite important for electronics systems that are deployed on the battlefield. If these systems are ever captured or there is an attempt to probe the PCB, physical layer security measures can disable a device in the event of tampering. Physical layer security measures can also be designed to allow the device to run while making it impossible to probe with damaging or destroying the device.
Bringing an additive manufacturing system in-house allows defense systems designers to experiment with unique physical layer security mechanisms without exposing those designs to an outside party. The level of complexity that can be implemented on an additively manufactured PCB allows product designers to implement component embedding, complex interconnect architecture, or any other physical layer security measure without increasing fabrication time or costs.
Greater Design Freedom for Defense and Aerospace with Additive Manufacturing
The benefits presented here all hinge on the design freedom provided by additive manufacturing systems. In the realm of electronics and mechanical products, designers are often constrained by the manufacturing process, which limits their freedom to innovate. Working with an additive manufacturing system frees designers from the constraints of traditional manufacturing processes, providing limitless freedom to innovate.
Using additive manufacturing for defense and aerospace products is an ideal method to bring innovation to a new level while taking greater control over product quality and security. The DragonFly LDM additive manufacturing system from Nano Dimension is a solution for in-house PCB prototyping or full-scale production of complex electronics with a planar or non-planar architecture. Read a case study or contact us today to learn more about the DragonFly LDM system.