Additive manufacturing opportunities in the aviation industry

Technology, Industry trends | Mar 17, 2020 | By Satair | 7 min read

Prior to our current situation, the winds of change were blowing across the plains of the aviation industry, as aircraft manufacturers and OEMs experiment with a revolutionary way of producing aircraft parts and components – additive manufacturing. As we prepare for the return of normal airline operations, should we take this as an opportunity to investigate the potential gains of additive manufacturing?

Increased delivery performance, lower fuel consumption and minimised aircraft downtime. These are just some of the advantages that companies already experimenting with additive manufacturing technology benefit from.

The technology provides an unprecedented level of supply chain flexibility. 3D-printed parts are lighter than their traditionally manufactured counterparts and can be built on demand, in a matter of minutes, with little to no human interaction. This lowers production costs, material scrap and fuel consumption, all the while increasing flexibility and parts availability.

Airbus is chasing additive manufacturing 

Global aircraft manufacturer, Airbus, is one of the companies leading the way in additive manufacturing. They’re already installing 3D-printed bionic spacers on a series of A320 jetliners and are also experimenting with 3D printing of more complex components, such as engine parts.

The five biggest challenges with additive manufacturing.

Most recently, the company has produced more than 1.000 3D-printed parts for one of their serial production aircrafts, the A350 XWB, including a 3D-printed titanium bracket. We asked Jérôme Rascol, Head of Additive Manufacturing Platform at Airbus, for his thoughts:

"As of today, AM can be used in a wide variety of niche applications. These niches will continue to develop and grow with the maturation of machines, offering answers to very demanding requirements with regard to the industrialization of post processing, standardization and optimization of cost structures."

"This is a chicken or egg dilemma, as it requires volume production. Airbus seizes any opportunity to use AM to prime the pump. It is of utmost importance that all actors of the AM value chain go the extra mile today, to share the gain tomorrow. The underlying objective is to get ready for the next program development, which will potentially be a fantastic accelerator thanks to advances in AM technology."

Benefits of additive manufacturing

According to a report from international consultancy agency Deloitte, using additive manufacturing technology can bring down aircraft part production costs by a staggering 50 percent, while minimising material scrap to 10 percent and reducing lead times by 64 percent. 

Furthermore, the average part weight is decreased by 64 percent by using 3D-printing technologies, making it possible to produce light-weight components with a Buy-to-Fly ratio of very close to 1. 

How Satair & Airbus use additive manufacturing.

Other benefits of additive manufacturing include: 

  • Efficient production of low-demand parts 
  • Reduced lead times
  • Higher part availability and inventory reduction 
  • Removes the need for expensive manufacturing tooling 
  • Part redesign and weight reduction
  • Higher eco-efficiency

Jérôme Rascol, Head of Additive Manufacturing Platform at Airbus, explains that Airbus is already yielding the benefits of additive manufacturing today.

»There are a variety of benefits associated with making use of AM technology, depending on the aircraft program lifecycle we are in; new product development, serial production or in-service. Already today, we can use it for low volume parts, high mix and development time and non-recurring cost-driven tasks—such as easing design evolutions, mitigating supply chain and offering repair solutions. This is what we call agile manufacturing,« he notes.

Airbus’ and Satair's leading experts – attend our Additive Manufacturing seminar.

With such impressive potential benefits, one might wonder why additive manufacturing still hasn’t blown the roof off the aviation industry.

Answering that question starts with looking at the speed of which the aviation industry is adopting additive manufacturing and understanding the current technical challenges associated with it. 

At the moment, aviation companies are in very different stages of adopting additive manufacturing. Some are sceptical of its potential, others welcome the new technology as the ultimate cost-saver— at this stage, the latter may also be a risky approach. 

»On one hand, A&D executives who are sceptical of AM’s potential may miss the opportunities the technology can offer. On the other hand, companies keen on benefiting from AM adoption may make hasty moves that do not align with their strategic imperatives,« Deloitte concludes. 

Tactical considerations

Deloitte has identified four tactical paths that companies in the aviation industry can take with regard to additive manufacturing. As most of these paths focus on the adoption and development stages of the technology, the majority of companies already involved with additive manufacturing have chosen the first path. 

Tactical path #1: Stasis 

»Companies do not seek radical alterations in either supply chains or products, but may explore AM technologies to improve value delivery for current products within existing supply chains,« Deloitte writes about this tactical approach, which is the predominant path in aviation companies today.

The aim of this tactic is to carefully experiment with the new technology, utilizing it in certain areas or for certain parts.

Fostering technological innovation in organisations.

Tactical path #2: Supply chain evolution

»Companies take advantage of scale economics offered by AM as a potential enabler of supply chain transformation for the products they offer.«

Companies on the second tactical path use AM to actively change the supply chain, while at the same time, keeping products themselves relatively unchanged. These companies take advantage of AM to reduce required inventory, increase responsiveness and flexibility, and keep manufacturing closer to the point of use. 

Here's what you need to know about the supply chain of tomorrow.

Tactical path #3: Product evolution

»Companies take advantage of the economics of scope offered by AM technologies to achieve new levels of performance or innovation in the products they offer.«

These companies take a product-oriented approach to AM, altering products and using AM to come up with new innovations, without making significant changes to their supply chain. Deloitte concludes that an increasing number of aviation companies are expected to take this path in the coming years, as additive manufacturing technology and material sciences improve.

Tactical path #4: Business model evolution

»Companies alter both supply chains and products in the pursuit of new business models«.

Foreseeable in the long term, this is the most radical path, in terms of its impact on aviation companies’ products and supply chain. Companies on this tactical path seek both high product change and high supply chain alteration with AM, ultimately developing new business models that may well shape the future of the industry.

Four MRO trends that every airline needs to consider.

»In the long term, A&D companies are likely to deploy path IV—that is, they could pursue product customization along with on-demand AM that will likely lead to supply chain disintermediation and the evolution of new business models,« Deloitte writes in the report.

Future of additive manufacturing 

The use of additive manufacturing and the possibilities it brings are predicted to increase dramatically in the coming years, as the technology matures.

»There’s little doubt that AM’s penetration into the A&D value chain will grow,« Deloitte concludes,« and continues:

»Some benefits, such as part simplification and weight reduction, can be obtained in current applications; others, such as production at/near the point of use, are only attainable in the longer term.«

At this stage, the primary task of aviation companies is to evaluate how AM can help advance their performance and growth. They must choose one of the four tactical paths previously described, based on their individual value drivers and strategic considerations.

The future is a connected one. How does the connected aircraft look and what does it take to achieve it?

So far, the majority of aviation companies are pursuing the first path, the less risky path. In the coming years, though, it’s likely that an increasing number of companies will pursue the third tactical path.

With advances in materials science and the technology itself, new opportunities will arise, which will allow companies to build increasingly complex end parts with improved functionality, likely paving the way for disruptive product innovations.

In the long term, it’s likely that companies will choose the fourth tactical path, leveraging AM for both product innovations and supply chain improvements, which could lead to significant changes in the companies’ business model. 

According to Airbus, the widespread adoption of additive manufacturing is inevitable, as the next generation of designers will grow up in a new technological reality where AM will be a natural part of the design thought process.

»I see one major benefit of more widespread additive manufacturing adoption in the consumer market, on top of technology cost reduction: a democratization of the technology, a culture change,« says Jérôme Rascol, Head of Additive Manufacturing Platform, at Airbus. He adds: 

»The next generation of designers will be raised in this environment, and will naturally be thinking and designing for this technology. This will have a tremendous effect in the expansion of the technology in the aeronautics, which should lead to earlier design maturity and ultimately better performance of our products.«  

Additive manufacturing is just one of a series of emerging technologies set to make an impact on the industry. Here are five technologies that will change the MRO business.