3D Printing Maximizes Design Flexibility

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3D Printing Maximizes Design Flexibility

laptop and 3D printer with blue 3D printed airplane model

The aerospace and defense industries have long been developers, and early adopters, of cutting-edge technology. Aerospace and defense companies, for example, have been using 3-D printing (also called additive manufacturing) technologies for nearly three decades. Designers in the military and aerospace industries have been quick to capitalize on the advantages of 3-D printing for concept modeling, component prototyping and the production of select end products, minus the constant retooling of manufacturing lines. 3-D printing also has positive long-term implications for the military and aerospace supply chain, including the reduction of scrap and the potential to build maintenance, repair and operations (MRO) parts on site and on demand.

Current applications of 3-D printing in aerospace and defense range from the production of simple products such as seat arm rests to more complex components such as engine parts. However, widespread adoption of additive manufacturing across the military and aerospace markets, according to the Deloitte University Press, is still a ways away. While 3-D printing offers designers and engineers the flexibility to design and test products as many times as required, the technology faces scalability and quality control challenges when it comes to manufacturing those products in volume.

Nevertheless, 3-D printing has characteristics that are well-suited for aerospace and defense companies, particularly when it comes to product design. The technology, which builds devices by layering materials such as polymers, composites and metals on top of one another, enables levels of flexibility unavailable through traditional manufacturing methods. These include:

  • Complex design tools and parts: 3-D printing helps engineers achieve designs, tools and products that are difficult to create through conventional manufacturing methods. For example, traditional machines construct cooling channels only in straight lines, which makes it difficult to optimize the flow of fluids in and around corners. 3-D printing can produce cooling channels that conform to the curvature or sharp angle of a part.
  • Intricate geometries: Parts with designs that include internal cavities or lattice structures can be more efficiently fabricated using 3-D printing techniques. The additive manufacturing process maintains the strength of a part by providing support only where it is needed. This helps reduce the weight of the device while maintaining its structural integrity.
  • Ease of product customization: Parts and components can be built in volumes much lower than in traditional manufacturing. Through changes in software design files, engineers can create multiple design iterations and produce numerous product prototypes without the expensive retooling of manufacturing lines.
  • Improved functionality through embedded electronics: Simple electronic devices, such as antennas, can currently be constructed through 3-D printing methods. These components, in turn, can be embedded into 3-D manufactured subassemblies used in leading-edge military and aerospace devices. Embedded electronics are gaining particular momentum in unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) applications. Aurora Flight Sciences has embedded functional electronics into complex-shaped structures using additive manufacturing techniques.

Over the years, the adoption of 3-D printing has increased across industries; 3-D printers are now a popular consumer item. The aerospace and defense industries, however, account for more than 10 percent of additive manufacturing’s $3.07 billion global revenues in 2013, according to Wohler Associates. Additive manufacturing, though, has several limitations when it comes to large-scale and volume manufacturing requirements, which have to be addressed before it further penetrates the military and aerospace industries:

  • Size: 3-D printing underperforms traditional techniques when it comes to manufacturing large products. Defense contractors and national laboratories are currently working on a large-area additive manufacturing system in which multiple deposition heads work in coordination to build large parts in an open environment.
  • Scalability: Although traditional manufacturing techniques produce large volumes of parts that may not all be used, 3-D printing may not be able to scale up production when necessary. Equipment providers are currently looking to improve the build speed of existing systems to support bulk production needs.
  • Materials: 3-D printers predominately use a narrow range of polymers and metal powders, and the costs are high versus materials used in traditional manufacturing. Few 3-D systems can also manufacture products using more than one material at a time.
  • Quality consistency: Excess heat can cause quality inconsistencies in 3-D printed components, particularly between layer boundaries. Equipment makers are looking to embed controls within 3-D printing machines that can measure accuracy as layers are added.

Defense budget cuts may be one of the incentives that accelerate the further development of 3-D printing solutions and materials. 

Additive manufacturing machines produce a lot less scrap than traditional equipment, which in turn saves costs on commonly used but expensive materials such as titanium. Defense OEMs also run the risk of having too many or too few parts when it comes to repairing expensive equipment. 3-D printing enables the production of a replacement device near the site of equipment failure in the exact volumes needed for repair. Ultimately, economies of scale may count as much as design flexibility when it comes to expanding leading-edge technologies in the defense and aerospace markets.

In Search of Channel Partners

In addition to solving some of the military’s sourcing problems, 3-D printing will be a lucrative market for component makers, distributors and sellers of computer equipment and peripherals. According to Research and Markets, the global 3-D printing market will reach $8.6 billion by 2020. The surge in growth is primarily due to rising demand for faster and more efficient ways to manufacture complex design objects using a wide array of materials.

The increasing adoption of 3-D printing in various application segments such as consumer products, industrial products, aerospace, automotive, defense, healthcare, education and research, architecture and arts are facilitating the growth of the 3-D printing market. Key industry segments such as healthcare and aerospace, which are growing at a promising rate, have witnessed significant penetration of 3-D printing technology.  The consumer product industry remains the largest application segment with about 22 percent of the market share, while the defense sector is expected to exhibit the fastest growth at a CAGR of 17.2 percent during the forecast period.

However, a lack of channel partners has been holding the 3-D printing market back. The higher cost of personal printing, expensive software and lack of channel partner assistance has been restraining the growth of the market. But as more suppliers come to understand the drivers of the 3-D printing marketplace, components makers such as STMicroelectronics and ARM will continue to target OEMs with the parts necessary to foster the continued growth of this market.

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