Ever since the very first planes took to the sky, manufacturing for the aerospace industry has been on a constant path of evolution. Engineers and designers have continually innovated, taking advantage of new materials and processes to enable the manufacture of safer, cost-effective, and more efficient aircraft.

One of the most transformative innovations has been the rise in additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. Specialist engineering businesses like ours, Airframe Designs, now specifically work with aerospace industry partners to deliver innovative, effective additive manufacturing services. From prototyping to replacing worn parts, our 3D printing services meet and exceed a wide range of challenges for our aerospace clients.

Read on for a brief history of additive manufacturing, how the technology is applied in the aerospace industry, and some of the techniques we offer.

 

Additive Manufacturing – Older Than You Think

image of a 3d printerAdditive manufacturing is a process that allows engineers to create physical objects such as parts or components by adding material in layers, usually using a ‘printer’. Based on CAD models, additive manufacturers create objects from the ground up. This ground-up approach allows for the creation of complex shapes and intricate designs that wouldn’t be possible with traditional methods.

It’s easier to think of additive manufacturing as the opposite of subtractive manufacturing where an object is created by cutting or removing materials. That’s actually how additive manufacturing got its name…because it’s additive rather than subtractive. 3D printing and additive manufacturing are the same, the latter term became more popular in the last twenty years as precision and quality improved.

Although additive manufacturing may seem like a new process, and the tech has indeed come on leaps and bounds in the last decade, you may be surprised to learn that the concept has been around since the 1940s. However, it wasn’t until the 1980s that the first 3D printers started to be used.

Initially, the technology wasn’t considered useful for anything other than the production of prototypes but developments starting in the 2000s mean the technology is now a viable manufacturing technique for the production of end-use parts.

 

Applications & Benefits Of Additive Manufacturing In Aerospace

Because additive manufacturers can create complex designs and even reverse engineer parts the technique has become prevalent in industries where high performance and precision matter. For performance and safety reasons, the aerospace industry is particularly demanding regarding precision so additive manufacturing has become a natural fit for the sector.

Working with materials which hold special properties, such as ultra polymers, additive manufacturers can address complex design challenges in the aviation industry. From the creation of super lightweight structural aircraft parts to highly heat-resistant fuel system components.

Because additive manufacturing is faster than some other methods of manufacture, engineers can rapidly prototype parts accelerating the design process. This is particularly beneficial to companies in the aerospace industry as it saves money and allows for prototypes to be reviewed before the ‘real thing’ is made.

Additive manufacturing is also useful when it comes to repairing damaged or worn-out aerospace components as damaged parts can be reverse-engineered, and a replica produced relatively quickly. This is also handy in the case of older aircraft where there may be issues obtaining parts that are no longer produced.

The aerospace industry also has a high demand for custom tooling equipment and fixtures which are used in the production or repair of aircraft. Using external specialists to produce these tools can cause significant delays for aerospace firms but with additive manufacturing, lead times on tools can be cut down significantly.

 

Techniques & Materials Employed in Aerospace 3D Printing

There are various additive manufacturing techniques available today and although those not in the know may think of 3D printing using plastics, a wide range of materials can be utilised, including metals and composites.

One of the most common techniques in additive manufacturing is Fusedimage of the Fortus 4502Deposition Modelling (FDM). Using an FDM printer, technicians extrude thermoplastic filament over a build plate in layers to create objects. If you’ve ever seen a video of a 3D printer in action, it will have likely been this familiar technique.

Using FDM at Airframe Designs we can produce parts with properties that are desirable in the aerospace industry – high strength, lightweight, chemically resistant, and tolerant of high temperatures. This technique is ideal for prototyping or end-use parts, is an extremely clean process, and is cost-effective.

One of the materials we use in conjunction with FDM is ULTEM™ 9085, an extremely high-performance thermoplastic. Its high-strength-to-weight ratio and resistance to chemicals make it ideal for multiple applications in the transport industry, including aerospace.

 

Airframe Designs: Your Aerospace 3D Printing Partner

At Airframe Designs, our advanced manufacturing facility houses an array of FDM printers and ancillary equipment including a Stratasys Fortus 450mc. We are proud to be innovators in additive manufacturing for the aerospace industry and are actively involved in R&D and the demonstration of new technologies through partnerships with industry specialists.

Our primary focus is the additive layer manufacturing of polymer parts, prototypes, trial-fit mock-ups, and lightweight tooling. Our expert team is equipped to handle and solve even the most complex of design challenges using additive manufacturing techniques.

The benefits we deliver to the aerospace industry are significant including faster lead times on parts or tools, improved quality, and the reduction of life-cycle costs for aircraft.

To speak to us about a project, please don’t hesitate to contact us.