Additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry
Aviation and aerospace are two of the pioneering sectors for additive manufacturing. These sectors are characterized by small batch sizes and manufacturer-specific adaptations. At the same time, these products are renowned for having very long life cycles (for example, components may be used in passenger aircraft for more than 30 years) and extremely high safety requirements. High levels of thermal or mechanical loading, especially during take-off and landing or if there is air turbulence, are one of the special features of the requirements profiles for most components.
The aerospace spectrum
The sector consists of manufacturers of spacecraft and rockets, manufacturers of military and civilian aircraft, helicopter manufacturers, manufacturers of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and jet engine manufacturers. The sector is regarded as a driver of innovation and an outstanding growth market for additive manufacturing. In terms of its future prospects, industry experts consider the potential growth for this industry to be very high.
Applications and materials in the aerospace industry
Functional parts with sophisticated geometries and defined aero-dynamic or fluid-dynamic properties can be manufactured very quickly and cost-efficiently using the powerful laser melting machines from Concept Laser. They include fuel systems, guide blades and rotor blades, attachment systems and special heat protection components. Parts for engines and turbines, rocket elements, test vehicles and high-quality components for equipping the cabin and cockpit (interior) are other typical applications. A disproportionately large number of high-performance materials such as Inconel 718, CobaltChrome superalloy, titanium and titanium alloys are used.
Freedom of geometry and bionics in the aerospace industry enable production of parts with improved performance
The level of affinity that the aerospace sector has with additive manufacturing is demonstrated in particular in the great flexibility of the process: The resulting potential often cannot be delivered using conventional techniques. For example, it is now possible to produce complex parts in one manufacturing step (one shot). Previously it was simply impossible to manufacture these components, or they could only be assembled laboriously with great effort from lots of individual components.
In addition, bionic designs that are suitable for the process enable the aircraft manufacturers to significantly boost performance: They enable higher loads to be withstood and thus ensure a greater level of safety. The basis for this is provided by special procedural characteristics such as manufacturing with selective densities and an optimized topology. The machines from Concept Laser also offer the appropriate tools for quality assurance and monitoring which also instantly provide the valid data while the part is being created.
Lightweight construction and functional integration: weight reduction in the aerospace industry
Bionically constructed components do not just produce a surprising visual result. Bionically designed lightweight parts are able, with the same load requirements, to be manufactured to be on average 20 - 30% lighter than milled or cast components. In some cases, the potential weight reduction is in fact as much as 60 - 80%, for example if rectangular metal blocks are transformed into pure connecting structures.
What is more, it is possible to integrate additional functions into the component which the previous parts were unable to deliver. To this extent, as well as the time saving there is also the additional benefit of a functional enhancement to the component.
Reduction in costs and toolless fabrication
The commercial aspects of the 3D printing method compared to conventional methods of molding and machining are also appreciated in the aerospace industry. This means that components can be manufactured in one piece or one shot. On the one hand this reduces the outlay on assembly (both time and costs), but on the other hand it also reduces stresses in the part and therefore possible weak spots.
As no lead times and costs for the preparation and long-term operation of tools are incurred, the cost structure and the availability of parts from toolless manufacturing are shown to be disparately better. Special factors play a role given the fact that an aircraft is expected to have a useful service life or more than 30 years: independence from tooling operators, the option to modify geometries during the life cycle or manufacture spare parts “on demand,” to ensure prompt availability and reduce overhaul times.
Traditional arguments in favor of additive manufacturing are of course also unmanned manufacturing (24h/7-day option) and significant savings on material resources or in the outlay on the process. Not least there is a very considerable reduction in the development times. Experience has shown that it is possible to shorten the timespan for a development project from several months to less than 30 days. These significant improvements have a very positive effect on the cost structure, coupled with faster availability (time to market) and greater flexibility.
Resource-conserving fabrication: “Green Technology” in the aerospace industry
For developers working in the aerospace industry, weight savings always provide a compelling argument when it comes to optimizing the fuel consumption without compromising on the safety requirements.
LaserCUSING® is a “Green Technology” and improves the much-quoted ecological footprint in aerospace manufacturing. Embracing the four particular aspects of lightweight construction, toolless manufacturing, decentralized manufacturing and manufacturing “on demand,” laser melting makes a real contribution to reducing CO₂ emissions.
An additive manufacturing strategy also offers the combined package of conserving resources, great economic efficiency and quality standards in the aerospace industry. When aircraft parts are milled, up to 95% recyclable waste is produced whereas the laser melting process produces a part whose level of recyclable waste is only around 5 - 10%.
Prompt, decentralized production “on demand” are also outstanding and striking strengths of this process. It results in an economic/ecological balance which traditional methods are unable to offer at this level.
Supply of replacement parts in the aerospace industry: prompt, local and on demand
In the future, it will be possible to manufacture replacement parts locally and close to where they will be used “on demand,” and to do so without using any tools. In the case of a routine replacement or component failure, the replacement part can be manufactured directly on site. Decentralized production networks may be established – global and regional strategies are possible. This means that transport routes and above all the delivery times can be minimized. As a consequence, the downtimes and overhaul periods required for maintenance of the aircraft are reduced. Large stocks of replacement parts containing rarely used parts, which are essential nowadays in view of the long lifespans that aircraft models enjoy, can be reduced significantly. A reduced tie-up of capital increases the level of flexibility and above all the time taken to obtain safety-critical components. In view of the pressure on costs in the aviation sector, the logistics component is particularly appealing.
General advantages of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry
The general plus points of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry include:
- Great potential for lightweight construction (high strength figures coupled with a reduction in weight of around 40 - 60%)
- Implementation of bionic designs with improved performance criteria
- Optional functional integration (e.g. cooling) or integral design
- Manufacture of the components in one shot, i.e. reduction in the outlay on assembly and weak spots
- No waste as with traditional machining methods (“buy to fly ratio” of around 90%)
- Contribution to achieving the industry’s sustainability targets: reduction in fuel consumption and CO₂ emissions
- Rapid and local availability, including “production on demand”
- Prompt fabrication without the use of tools (no up-front costs and tooling costs for tools)
- Unmanned production 24h/day
- Time to market – shorter development times (less than 30 days rather than several months)
- Faster overhaul cycles (greater availability of aircraft)
- Overall improvement in cost structure and economies of scale
- Maximum reproducibility of the components
- High level of precision and consistently high quality of the components
- Retrofit option and/or partial refurbishing
Here you can find some customer statements:
"The working relationship with the system partner Concept Laser is excellent in terms of the process support and the potential of the technology is only in its infancy. With LaserCUSING®, we are not just in a continuous improvement process but ultimately in a continuous creativity process in order to give shape to the ideas of tomorrow in parts." Markus Boje, Head of Department Systemhaus Technik, DLR Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt