Clear skies ahead: Additive manufacturing spreads its wings in aerospace & defense

By Jonathan Holdowsky

A funny thing happened on the way to writing this blog—Additive Manufacturing (AM) has grown up. Now, some may rightly say that AM has been around for decades. And it has. But there can be little doubt that the reach and scope of AM, or 3D printing, now touches virtually every aspect of industrial and, indeed, human activity. Certainly, Deloitte’s 3D Opportunity collection of thought leadership bears this out in the vast scope and depth of its coverage. And, of course, one can also point to any number of widely available metrics that makes clear AM’s remarkable strides—from number of patents to AM system revenues to how common the term “additive manufacturing” now appears in Google searches compared to just a few years ago.

But what exactly has driven this remarkable growth? To be sure, there is no single answer to this question. Certainly, AM systems have become more versatile in the materials they use and more sophisticated in the technologies and processes they exploit. Printers have also become more cost-effective in being able to do more for the same or even less financial investment—more “bang for the buck”. But just as importantly, there is an unmistakable sense that AM has “arrived”. Players within well-established “old-line” industries have begun to view AM with greater acceptance as a viable—and even advantageous—manufacturing solution.

Take Aerospace & Defense (A&D), for example, one of the most “traditional” manufacturing industries. Now, it is true that A&D was an early adopter of AM technology. This may seem a bit counterintuitive given the especially “high-stakes” nature of the A&D manufacturing process and the unsurprisingly conservative mindset of A&D organizations.

But, in truth, A&D’s early adoption of AM rested largely in prototyping and tooling applications, with very limited production of end-use parts. And what AM production there was tended to reside within “lower risk” products like storage bins in commercial aircraft, among other examples. As my colleagues John Coykendall, Mark Cotteleer, Monika Mahto, and I wrote several years ago in 3D opportunity for Aerospace & Defense: Additive manufacturing takes flight, A&D executives showed reluctance to adopt AM on a broad scale for a variety of reasons that ranged from the unproven nature of the AM process in complex manufacturing environments to its perceived limited variety of usable materials. That the A&D industry traditionally and rightly has been characterized by an ethos of caution also did not help drive widespread AM adoption.

The tide appears to be turning.

Today, A&D players are leveraging AM in ways far beyond prototyping and tooling. Here are just a few examples:

  • A French A&D player is using AM to print a mission critical turbine nozzle on an auxiliary power unit (APU), with an eye towards mass production.
  • A major US engine manufacturer announced that it would use 3D printing for 35 percent of a new turboprop engine. That same manufacturer has begun to 3D print fuel nozzles on an engine for a large commercial aircraft (LCA)—thought to be the first time that the technology has been used on such an LCA engine for production purposes.
  • The largest US-based commercial aircraft manufacturer is seeking FAA approval to print titanium alloyed structural parts for its largest plane in an effort to reduce weight and save cost. What makes this significant is that, if approved, this would be the first application of AM in a high-stress aeronautical environment that goes to the very heart of the plane’s structural integrity.
  • Blockchain is not just the leading edge of the financial world. It is also becoming increasingly important to the A&D industry’s adoption of AM. The blockchain technology is thought to safeguard against data hacking of the design file. One US-based A&D player has developed a technology solution that leverages blockchain distributed ledger technology via a shared database in order to certify the authenticity of an AM part.
  • And, of course, AM is playing an increasingly large role within the context of A&D maintenance, repair, and overhaul, especially for older aircraft spare parts.

The list goes on. But the larger point is that A&D executives no longer view AM as a solution exclusively or perhaps even primarily for prototyping or tooling. Quite to the contrary, they increasingly rely on it as a practical solution for a wide range of mission sensitive applications and are making substantial bets on AM’s long-term viability in terms of time, treasure, and the very future of the organization, as a result.


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