3D printing has the potential to create a massive impact in industries around the world. This is something that has been predicted for quite a long period of time, but as things stand, we are finally on the verge of turning these predictions into a reality with mass scale commercialization of 3D printing technology across global industries. There are certain industries that are going to benefit a lot more than the others. An example of such an industry is the aerospace sector.
Like a lot of industries around the world, the aerospace sector is quickly adopting the 3D technology in multiple forms. Rapid prototyping through 3D printing is being used to manufacture aircraft parts and components in an attempt to cut down the production cost of airplanes and make flights cheaper around the world. One of the biggest names in the aerospace domain, Boeing, is already making great use of 3D printing. You will be surprised to know that this globally recognized company has been printing in excess of 20,000 components and parts every single year since 2013.
As 3D printing technologies and additive manufacturing processes continue to carve out room for themselves in the aerospace industry, people are likely to see incredible breakthroughs in this domain in the not so distant future. The potential applications of 3D printing in the aerospace domain hold great promise for the future. The following is a list of the four most realistic applications of additive manufacturing that you can expect in the aerospace industry within a decade or two:
1) Aircraft Wings
3D printed small parts and components of aircrafts have already been commercially developed. The challenge for the major players such as Boeing is to produce the larger and more significant parts of the aircraft through 3D printing. As a matter of fact, Boeing has plans in place to manufacture an aircraft that will have wings which are completely 3D printed. It is an ambitious project, but when you consider the fact that a DIY 3D printing enthusiast has already manufactured a functional Boeing jet engine model, you’d bet on Boeing to mass produce aircraft wings within a short space of time in the near future.
But it is not going to be easy, not even for a company that is as well funded as Boeing. The reason for that is because the 3D printing techniques have plenty of limitations. This is particularly true when it comes to printing large objects. For instance, the increase in dimensions makes it more likely for internal stress to build up within the material. This can lead to distortion or even a full collapse of the structure. Modern techniques, such as the one developed by BAE Systems, can solve this problem to a certain extent. BAE Systems makes strong 3D printed metal parts that are repeatedly struck with an ultrasonic tool which provides significant strength to the material. This makes it easier for the stress to be relieved from the 3D printed parts.
Once the limitations of 3D printing techniques are sorted out, mass scale production of aircraft wings will become an easily achievable goal.
2) Complex Engine Parts
As stated before, a fully functional model of the Boeing jet engine has already been 3D printed by a DIY printing enthusiast at home. How long before we see 3D printed jet engines in action in real aircrafts? GE is developing 3D printed parts for the GE9X engine. This is the world’s largest jet engine. It has been specifically made to be placed inside the next generation Boeing 777X long haul passenger jet. Besides commercial applications, 3D printing will be immensely useful in prototyping complex engine parts for next generation aircraft models.
3) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
BAE Systems have come up with a way to use 3D printing to manufacture UAVs or unmanned aerial vehicles. These vehicles would be useful in a disaster scenario. According to their concept, an aircraft to examine a disaster site and send reports back to the mission control that could then create visual designs for on-board printers. UAVs would be created on the basis of these visual designs. The goal is to create unmanned aerial vehicles that meet the requirements of the disaster scenario.
4) On-Demand Parts for Space Exploration Vehicles
NASA has done an incredible job of incorporating 3D printed parts in their space exploration vehicle. The problem with these parts is that they are created and developed on earth. This elongates the supply chain to a point of logistical inconvenience. This is why plans are in place to come up with 3D printers that can create on-demand parts for space exploration vehicles in space. Made in Space, in collaboration with NASA, are going to create 3D printers that can efficiently produce space exploration when they are really needed. A 3D printed ratchet wrench has already been manufactured in the International Space Station.