Aerospace is probably one of the industries where the potential is almost endless for additive manufacturing (AM). According to the latest 3D Printing Media ebook on AM in aerospace,use of AM in this industry should represent over $17 billion ten years from now, in 2030! As of today, it’s already a $3 billion market. 

 We were thrilled to have true experts on the topic during this month’s Women in 3D Printing Virtual Panel as we welcomed Boeing Additive Manufacturing Chief Engineer, Anna Tomzynska, GE Aviation Chief Engineer, Deb Whitis, and Relativity Space Senior Engineer Additive Technologies, Eliana Fu on our virtual stage. This discussion was led and moderated by AM-Cubed President & Founder, and Women in 3D Printing Board Director, Kristin Mulherin

To give some context on our panelists, here are some of the recent AM success stories they got to work on in their respective companies: 

Boeing’s 3D printed antenna for the AMOS 17 satellite tv for pc

Last fall, Boeing launched the first ever metal 3D printed satellite antenna that will go out on the AMOS 17 geostationary communications satellite. 

GE Aviation’s powerful business case is the fuel nozzle as they are manufacturing thousands of them (already 30,000 of them back in 2018!) but they also got approved for a 3D printed power door opening system bracket (PDOS bracket) for GEnx-2B engine, and have about 20 more components about to be certified. 

Relativity Space, on their end, are getting closer than ever to fully 3D print and launch an entire rocket, and are about to move all their manufacturing operations into new facilities in Long Beach, CA

Now, let’s get into this: 

What aerospace-related challenges AM can help resolve? 

Unsurprisingly, our panelists all mentioned cost savings as being the number one argument for AM adoption in aerospace, which happens to be an argument we hear from other industries as well. 

Cost savings can take various forms and colors though, from reduced lead times, weight reduction, to parts consolidation. 

For Satair, an Airbus services company, cost reduction thanks to AM can be found in on-demand tools manufacturing solutions that are accelerating maintenance of the aircrafts. Fast Radius redesigned some of the qualifying components for AM, stored them into their Virtual Warehouse, and used the HP Jet Fusion 580 Color 3D Printer to manufacture these parts when needed. 

Do draw a parallel with other industries, during my time at Ivaldi Group and our work in the maritime industry, we found that some 50% of procurement costs stem from storage and transportation. This is where digital distributed manufacturing strategies can be applied in saving costs. 

What is the biggest hurdle for a more massive adoption of AM in aerospace? 

There is a consensus across our panel that the quality of the 3D printers available today needs to be improved in order to reach consistency. 

Strong partnerships between 3D printer manufacturers, software engineers, material scientists and industry professionals are a necessity to understand and fix the issues as well as finding ways to work around them. 

A bio-inspired heat exchanger for power generation applications GE

Finding the right application comes next. Heat exchangers seem to be one of the best applications across the industry and even in other heavy industries, especially in terms of cost savings and schedule perspective, but also in terms of weight reduction. 

Lots of work on standards for materials has already been done, but it’s not enough and more needs to be done to expand the use of AM for more components in aerospace and other industries. We also need to find ways to reduce the cost and time it takes to get components certified and compliant with the FAA standards. 

To tackle all these issues, our panelists would like to see more consortiums and industry programs and partnerships instead of witnessing companies working on reinventing the wheel individually and developing new standards. 

In the list of the most immediate challenges, COVID-19 has affected a lot of the aerospace suppliers and it’s getting hard to reconcile the fast pace in which aerospace innovation navigates and this supply chain issue. How do we keep up with testing and production, hiring etc…in today’s economic context? 

Why 3D Print an entire rocket? 

The number one argument is lead time. As an example, Eliana shared about her recent experience ordering titanium sheets. It might sound crazy for AM professionals, but the average lead time to get simple titanium sheets is 56 weeks! This a time small aerospace companies don’t have. The only way they can compete with more established billion-dollar companies is on the lead time and meet a customer’s strict deadline. 

What is the process of getting AM parts approved by the FAA? 

According to our panelists, the process isn’t any different than for traditionally manufactured components. It requires compliance with the standard and extensive testing. 

The process can take from months to years and be extremely expensive. Still, there are huge advantages in changing the shape and complexity of a component by redesigning it for AM. It’s all about finding that balance between cost savings on the long run and short term investment. 

What about polymers in aerospace? 

Boeing has more than 7,000 3D printed components in flight. 90% of them are polymer parts and are oftentimes non structural nor critical parts. 

On the opposite, GE Aviation is 90% about metal parts because of the heat resistance requirement for engine parts. The 10% of polymer parts they 3D print are for tooling and masking mostly. 

As both companies are looking into applications at the level of entire systems, versus singled-out components, there might be room for additional materials, such as ceramics, in the future.

What is the ratio between in-house AM and using suppliers? 

Relativity Space Stargate factory

Relativity Space is concentrating the effort in building in house parts that can’t be made elsewhere, through their Stargate factory. They subcontract parts that are already well done by suppliers. In Eliana’s opinion, using suppliers is actually a great way to make the entire industry better since everyone learns from service bureaus and suppliers get better with the variety of parts they are manufacturing. 

For GE Aviation, IP is what drives the decision. FAA requirements also dictate where a part can be manufactured as not every service bureau is set to respect these requirements. Deb does see opportunities in the future to subcontract more parts as standards become more widely adopted by the AM industry. 

For Boeing and commercial aviation more broadly, using suppliers is the only way they can scale up. It can take months to years for a service bureau to be approved for production for manned flights AM components. They need to show compliance with FAA standards, minimal defects, and an exemplar quality control process.

How do you select and prioritize parts to be converted to AM? 

At GE Aviation, decisions are driven by a good cost model. You need good criteria for screening what makes sense for AM. At GE Aviation only, there are over 80 components in development for AM right now. 

Boeing is looking at the system level, complex parts being the best applications. 

The FAA has very strict standards, but for unmanned one-time applications, the standards can be bent slightly. That being said, Relativity Space, even when launching satellites, wants successful launches! 

The panelists also talked about educating the team in thinking 3D Printing and the need to unlearn in order to re-learn new processes and innovation. This is a topic we discussed extensively in last month’s panel on design & innovation. Other topics that were discussed are designing new materials and hopes of the panelists for new applications of AM in aerospace.

I invite you to watch the full panel here for more on these additional topics. 

A huge thank you to our panelists, Anna Tomzynska Deb Whitis, and Eliana Fu, for making this discussion so interesting. And of course, to our moderator, Kristin Mulherin, who is putting together phenomenal panels and great questions. I also loved that our audience kept the level pretty high by asking challenging questions all along. 

Stay tuned for our next panel! 

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