The future of aerospace manufacturing is digital | MRO Network

The future of aerospace manufacturing is digital


Damian Hennessey, director at 3D printing specialist Proto Labs, looks at how the technology will shape the future of aerospace manufacturing from airframe to components.

To keep pace with an increasingly competitive international market, it’s crucial that the UK’s aerospace industry continues to find ways to improve passenger experience whilst scaling back costs and becoming more energy efficient. To support this, the UK Government invested £100 million last year, aiming to attract new skills, technology and innovation to the industry.

Finding new means of reducing weight, cutting down on emissions, and increasing cargo and cabin capacity, airline manufacturers have embraced the spirit of innovation by turning to the latest in digital manufacturing technology as the key way forward.

Organisations across a range of industries are currently enjoying new and exciting opportunities to transform their business and improve their speed to market through employing digital manufacturing technology. The advances in automation and the new types of manufacturing processes it offers, running in parallel with significant developments in existing technology, represent part of an ongoing transformation within the aerospace industry.

Advancements in 3D printing techniques in particular are already delivering tangible benefits to manufacturers as a means of reducing material and labour costs, enabling them to test small parts and components such as those critical to the construction of landing gear and engines. In the recent United

Launch Alliance between Boeing and Lockheed Martin, for example, a move to 3D printing technology for the manufacture of components saved the companies a reported $1m in a year.

Quick turnaround

The benefits of digital manufacturing extend far beyond simply driving down costs though. With customers increasingly expecting rapidly produced parts to be made readily available within a matter of days, the entire manufacturing industry is more than ever being shaped by customer demand. As a result of this, manufacturers today find themselves faced with the challenge of producing components at speed without compromising on quality or customer satisfaction.

It is hugely important within the aerospace industry itself, components are able to be moved rapidly and inexpensively from concept stage to finished product.

Through the use of automated 3D printing techniques such as stereolithography, direct metal laser sintering and selective laser sintering, as well as advanced injection moulding or advanced CNC machining, rapid prototyping means that ideas can become reality within days of being uploaded via a CAD screen.

While different techniques are more suitable for different applications, the use of rapid prototyping enables prototypes to be produced in quick turnaround, allowing them to be used for visual inspection, ergonomic evaluation, form-fit analysis and as master patterns for product tools amongst other things.

In some cases, manufacturers have reported a 60 per cent shorter turnaround using rapid prototyping methods for product manufacturing than with more traditional methods.

The array of prototyping materials and advanced manufacturing technologies available today allow designers and engineers to take advantage of opportunities for iterative, and even parallel-path testing, previously unavailable to them.

3D printing is especially beneficial when used for quick-turn prototyping and short production runs. And, as aircraft and their component parts become smaller and more efficient, the geometry of these parts becomes ever more complex. It’s here that 3D printing is invaluable, when the design of these components is intricate, demands greater dimensional tolerances and multiple components are required to be printed simultaneously.

Driving the transformation forward

According to a recent report by Airbus, the global demand for aircraft is set to increase dramatically over the coming decades and so will the demand for their constituent components. The report suggests, for example, that there will be a 106 per cent increase by 2034 in the demand for passenger planes alone. If true, then such an increase in demand will require manufacturers to take stock of their current processes, embracing new technologies and ways of working that will allow them to meet customer expectations and improve their speed to market.

Many businesses within the aeronautical manufacturing industry are already considering new design and manufacture techniques and technologies that will help them meet demands for greater efficiency and innovation while, at the same time, having to work within ever tighter budgets.

Over the coming decade, we expect to see significant transformation throughout the aerospace industry. Through innovative thinking and the application of technology, manufacturers will be required to take the lead as the sector evolves.

Technological advances continue to streamline efficiencies and lower costs, and developments in big data and autonomous systems are enabling manufacturers to explore entirely new ways of doing business. By embracing digital manufacturing technology, and 3D printing in particular, manufacturers can open the door to the innovation they need to drive the transformation forward.

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