In today’s landscape of discovery and innovation, 3D printing has gone a little under the radar. With the world’s focus set on artificial intelligence, big data and machine learning, the role of the 3D printer in implementing full-scale automation can often be underappreciated. It has the possibility to transform the manufacturing process by making it cheaper in the long term, more efficient and more accurate, while also reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.
Despite aerospace’s notoriously poor recent record of riding the crest of the wave when it comes to innovation, the fact that 3D printers are no longer restricted to polymers and can in fact print metal components has got the industry onside. Also known as additive manufacturing, this technology is still in its infancy but manufacturers are beginning to understand its value and the benefits that come with it – so much so that aerospace firms make up one fifth of industry adopters.
General Electric’s 2016 purchases of two 3D printing businesses, which came at the princely sum of $1 billion, have signalled the firm’s intentions to be at the forefront of the industry’s adoption. Announcing new deals at this year’s Paris Air Show, GE are focusing their efforts on additive manufacturing for the production of their GE9X engine – in doing so, the engine will boast a 10 per cent reduction in fuel consumption to its predecessor, the first in a long list of benefits.
As an example of how additive manufacturing is driving efficiencies, it is not only a cost-effective means of production, it also makes huge savings in the way of time. Of course, it means that part of the assembly process can be automated, but there are also hopes that an engine that currently requires 800 parts to be put together could soon be made with as few as eight individual pieces. Mention the words “99 per cent reduction” in any business case and you’ll see a fair few ears pricked up.
Bettering GE’s efforts is Arizona-based aerospace firm Honeywell. Part of the printing problem is gaining approval from America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and Honeywell are way ahead of the game – so far, more than 30 of their parts have been authorised by the FAA, and they hope to have a further 250 sanctioned by the end of the year. Things are moving quickly.
The task at hand for the rest of the industry is not letting those on the front foot pull away from the rest of the pack. Getting on board may not be as difficult as it seems, it’s all about the approach. While Honeywell are manufacturing the same parts but in a new way, GE Aviation are innovating – 90 per cent of their 3D printing plans are based on new product designs. What’s required, as with any transformative project, is talent that creates a fertile environment for new, fresh ideas.
Yes, just is the case with any successful disruptor, it will be people – not technology – that drives meaningful change. Whether it’s applying new technology to existing processes, or starting totally from scratch, the aviation sector must focus on talent in order to innovate.
This is the final article in our series based on the Paris Air Show. You can read our first piece How aerospace businesses are navigating across the pond here, or take a look at our perspective on electric aviation and the “Uber of the skies”.