top of page
3D printing in aerospace

3D Printing in Aerospace

3D printing, or additive manufacturing, is super important in making airplanes. In the aerospace world, where every ounce counts, 3D printing helps create planes that are lighter and use less fuel, saving tons of money. It's a big deal because it lets aerospace companies make parts in a cheaper and more efficient way. Aerospace folks were some of the first to really use 3D printing to make important airplane parts. This new way of making things has changed how we design and build planes. And as 3D printing gets better and better, the aerospace industry keeps benefitting from it. In aerospace, 3D printing isn't just for making prototypes or tools. It's also used for making actual parts of airplanes, like nozzles and control panels. This article will talk about how 3D printing works in aerospace, the stuff it's made from, and what it's used for in making airplanes.

What Is 3D Printing?

3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, is a way of making things where each part is built up layer by layer until the whole thing is done. Unlike traditional methods like CNC machining, which cut away material, 3D printing adds material to create the final product. It's handy for making all sorts of items, from small gadgets to complex components used in industries like aerospace, cars, medicine, and machinery. While the idea of 3D printing has been around since the 1980s, it's really taken off in the 21st century as a great way to make parts that might otherwise need lots of different processes.

When Did the Aerospace Industry Start Using 3D Printing? 

Back in 1989, the aerospace industry was quick to adopt 3D printing. Ever since the technology emerged in the 1980s, aerospace has played a significant role in shaping its advancements. Even now, it continues to be a major player in the 3D printing world, raking in about 16% of the total revenue generated by this technology.

How Did 3D Printing Start in the Aerospace Industry?

In the late 1980s, 3D printing began making waves in the aerospace sector. Initially, it was embraced by the US military and defense industry. They found it handy for testing and simulating aircraft parts using plastics instead of pricier metals.

For a while, 3D printing mainly served as a tool for prototyping and testing in aerospace. But around the mid-2000s, things changed. Innovations like selective laser sintering made it possible to print flame-retardant plastics. This breakthrough expanded 3D printing's role in aerospace.

As the technology progressed, so did its applications in aerospace. Nowadays, it's not just about prototyping; 3D printing is involved throughout an aircraft's lifecycle. It helps in designing and validating parts, making tools and jigs for maintenance, and even crafting components for jet engines and interiors.

Kinds of Materials Are Used in 3D Printing for Aerospace Applications

A number of different materials are used in aerospace industry applications. Common materials used are listed and described below:

Metal

Metals are natural materials that are flexible and shiny. They're great at conducting heat and electricity, better than most other materials. For example, aluminum and titanium are often chosen for making airplane parts because they don't easily rust and they're strong compared to how much they weigh.

Nowadays, we even use 3D printing to make metal parts for things like engines, frames, and electronics in aircraft. But there's a catch – metals are heavy. If there's too much metal in an airplane, it can make the plane less efficient and use up more fuel.

Glass 

Glass is a special substance formed when a mix of silica and other stuff is cooled down super fast from a hot, melted state. It's clear, breakable, and humans have been making it for ages. Although we usually think of glass in windows, the glass used in 3D printing isn't for airplane windows. Instead, it's mixed with plastics to make them stronger and lighter, helping planes fly more efficiently.

Ceramics

Ceramics are materials that aren't made from metals and don't have carbon in them. They're awesome for stuff like planes and spacecraft because they don't get messed up easily by rust, they're light, and they can handle a lot of wear and tear. But, they're super tough and prone to breaking, which makes turning them into parts a bit of a challenge.

examples of ceramics that can be used to make parts with 3D printers are kaolin and porcelain clay.

industry_3d_aerospace

Polymers 

Polymers are substances made up of chains of molecules that repeat. In aerospace, we often use synthetic thermoplastics such as nylon and ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) as polymers. These materials are handy for making things like seatback and wall panels or air ducts through 3D printing. They're favored in aerospace because they're light and tough. But, unlike metals, they're not as strong, so they're not ideal for heavy-duty tasks where metals are usually chosen.

Inconel

Inconel is a special type of alloy made from nickel and chromium, known for being super strong when exposed to high temperatures. It's also really good at resisting damage from stretching and corrosion. In the world of 3D printing for aerospace, Inconel is a popular choice for making parts for jet engines, like fuel nozzles. However, the downside is that it can be pretty pricey.

Carbon Fiber 

Carbon fibers are super strong strands made of carbon atoms. They're really thin but tough. People use them in aerospace because they're as strong as steel but way lighter than aluminum. So, when they make airplane parts with carbon fiber, it makes the plane perform better. But, making carbon fiber is tricky and costs a lot, so it's not used as much in aerospace as it could be.

Composites

Composite materials are made by combining two or more different materials that work well together. They're great because they're strong but not heavy, and they're also good at resisting wear and tear. When we use composite materials in 3D printing for making aircraft parts, it makes the aircraft lighter and stronger because each material brings its own good qualities to the mix. However, one drawback is that these materials aren't suitable for use inside the body, and they can cost more than other options.

What Are the Different Types of 3D Printing Used in the Aerospace Industry?

There are several different types of 3D printing that can be used in the aerospace industry. These are listed below:

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM)

Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) is a method of 3D printing where a special kind of plastic is melted and then carefully layered to create objects. It works like this: a heated nozzle squirts out the melted plastic onto a platform, forming the first layer of the object. Once that layer cools down, another layer is added on top, and so on until the whole thing is finished. In the aerospace industry, FDM is mainly used for making prototypes and testing designs rather than making actual airplane parts.

Stereolithography (SLA)

Stereolithography (SLA) is a cool 3D printing method where a special liquid material turns into a solid object layer by layer. It uses a special kind of resin that hardens when exposed to UV light. This process is super precise, giving you really detailed 3D-printed parts. People often use SLA for making small things in cabins, like door knobs and panels on the back of seats.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) 

Selective laser sintering (SLS) is a type of 3D printing where thermoplastic powders are fused together layer by layer using a laser. Each layer is formed, then more powder is added, and the process repeats. SLS is excellent for making parts with intricate shapes and details. In aerospace, SLS is often used to create small batches of parts like air ducts and heat-resistant pieces such as nozzle bezels.

Direct Energy Deposition (DED)

Directed Energy Deposition (DED) is a type of 3D printing where an energy source like a laser, electron beam, or plasma arc is used to melt powder or filament as it's laid down from a nozzle. It's quite similar to Electron Beam Melting (EBM) but doesn't need a vacuum. DED printing is often employed to create metal components, especially in the production of parts for jet turbine engines.

Electron Beam Melting (EBM)

Electron beam melting (EBM) is a type of 3D printing where metal parts are made layer by layer using electrically conductive metal powder and electron beams. This process needs to happen in a vacuum so that gas molecules don't mess with the electron beam's energy. The beam heats the metal powder to super high temperatures (between 1112-1292 °F), melting it and fusing it together to create parts. EBM is great for making metal components like suspension wishbones.

Types of Applications Are 3D-Printed Parts Used for in the Aircraft Industry

application in areospace
  1. Engine Parts
    Engine parts need to be tough to handle the intense pressures and heat. Advanced techniques like 3D printing, using methods such as EBM and DED, are making parts like fuel nozzles both lighter and more efficiently. This not only boosts aircraft performance but also helps the environment.

  2. Structural Elements
    These are the pieces inside and outside the aircraft that give it shape and strength. Using 3D printing with materials like titanium and its alloys, copper, and nickel alloys, parts like brackets and wishbones can be made stronger and lighter, thanks to methods like EBM and DED.

  3. Maintenance and Fixes Regular
    maintenance keeps aircraft safe and operational for longer. 3D printing, with techniques like EBM and DED, can produce tools and fixtures needed for maintenance out of metals such as titanium, stainless steel, and copper, making repairs easier and faster.

  4. Interiors
    From cabin gadgets to avionics gear, interior components are crucial. Methods like SLA and SLS in 3D printing are commonly used to create these parts, making them more customizable and efficient.

  5. Prototypes and Tools
    Creating and testing new ideas and tools is essential in aerospace. 3D printing is perfect for this, allowing complex parts to be made quickly and easily. It's ideal for developing and testing new components like suspension parts and nozzle fixtures.

The Application of SLS 3D Printing in Aerospace

SLS technology is mainly used for making prototypes, but now it's also being used more for testing out actual parts and even for making things in bulk.

In the aerospace field, SLS 3D printing is being used to make the insides of airplanes. Some airlines are using it to create parts for airplane cabins. For instance, they've used SLS to make shields for video cameras on planes to test them during flights.

Besides, special types of components made with SLS technology, using specific powders, are being used in wind tunnels to help design better aerodynamics. They're also being used for making intricate parts.

With SLS, you can make airplane parts quickly and they perform really well. This means SLS could revolutionize how we make lightweight airplane parts, making it easier to customize them and produce them in smaller batches for aerospace needs.

bottom of page