3D Printing

Planes are getting lighter thanks to 3D printing

Metal 3D printing is proving a game-changer in the aviation industry, with lightweight parts helping to slash the overall weight, fuel consumption and even the cost of planes.

Additive printing has allowed the manufacturers to go back to the drawing board and redesign each and every component without worrying how to mill them from solid metal. With a complete clean sheet of paper, they have been able to work to new tolerances, find structural rigidity by building parts in one piece and cut the weight.


Metal printer sales up significantly

Wohlers Associates produces an annual industry report and he stated that companies bought 808 machines last year that can print metal parts, up from 550 in 2014. As these machines can cost more than $1 million, that’s a significant jump.

Essentially the metal 3D printer works using a laser or electron beam to melt metal in its powder form and build it up layer-by-layer to create a finished structure that has at least the same rigidity and strength as traditionally cast metal. The technology is in its infancy, as well.

Researchers can now revisit alloys that were simply impossible to create before to reduce weight, increase structural rigidity and even change the structure.

Fuel nozzles 25% lighter

One example that rears its head time and again is GE Aviation’s new fuel nozzles. These used to be made of 20 separate parts. Now it is just one piece and there are 19 of them in a standard LEAP engine. Not only they are 25% lighter, the 3D printed models are five times more durable. Thanks to the way the fuel flow can be totally controlled, they are more efficient too.

Rest assured that the next generation nozzles will be further improved, now that the company has opened the Centre for Additive Technology Advancement (CATA) in Pittsburgh. The end goal is to produce 30,000 of these nozzles a year and they are just the start.

Satellites and rockets will feel the benefit too

The technology giant provides jet engines for military use, as well as in satellites, as well as for commercial jets, so it will certainly add to the nozzles and housing temperature sensors that it has revealed thusfar.

The aviation firm has also revealed weight saving measures with the structure of the ceramic blades in the jet engines. Now, with a whole facility devoted to 3D printing, each and every component on a commercial jet, from the wheels to the plastics that form the overhead compartments, can be analysed and optimised.

Parts that were previously milled from solid metal can now be created with solid walls sandwiching a matrix that is just as strong but is much lighter. This has the potential to cut thousands of lbs off the overall weight of a plane.

How much does a plane weigh anyway?

A Boeing 777-300ER weighs in at 775,000lb, so shaving fractions of a gram off each and every part would make a significant difference in the grand scheme of things. Even a rim on a 747 weighs in at 164lb, so every part is up for evaluation and 3D printing offers.

If the plane or rocket weighs less then it can go faster, use less fuel and travel further. There really is no downside to cutting the weight, so GE Aviation and every other manufacturer is looking to 3D printing as a means to put their planes on a diet.

Boeing has made the 777-300 2% more fuel efficient with a combination of weight saving, aerodynamics and other techniques. The company reckons it’s worth $1 million a year and it’s just the start.

We’re excited to see what the leaner, meaner aeroplanes of the future and the contribution 3D printing makes to that lightweight Utopia.

It’s going to be spectacular.