The Boeing Company recently partnered with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to 3-D-print an object the size of a large SUV to help make airplane wings. This new tool is just the latest sign of how deeply the aviation industry is plunging into the world of 3-D printing, or “additive manufacturing,” as the industry prefers to call it. Boeing’s biggest competitor, Airbus, for example, recently rolled out a new plane with over 1,000 additively manufactured parts.

Boeing’s record-breaking new tool is the largest solid object ever printed, and it took just 30 hours to make. Building the 1,600-pound object conventionally would have taken three months.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates all aspects of the civil aviation industry, including the burgeoning interest in 3-D printing technology. However, the transition to 3-D-printed parts is moving in “baby steps,” with an eye toward safety. Even when confined to non-critical areas, though, 3-D printed parts already make up a surprisingly high percentage of new planes — 1000+ for the Airbus A350-XWB.

For example, in a study published last year, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that the electron beam melting method of 3-D printing resulted in bubbles in their titanium alloy blocks. These pores weaken the blocks and can result in breaks. But the researchers also reported that they could eliminate most of these pores by slowing down printing speeds and overlapping more layers.

Additive manufacturing reduces waste from traditional manufacturing techniques, such as machining; and it eliminates the high cost of molds for less wasteful techniques such as injection molding and die casting. Printed polymer and metal parts can even be used to replace conventionally manufactured parts with lighter substitutes – an important asset for airlines trying to save fuel costs.  And, 3-D printing allows designers to customize the internal support structure of the piece for added strength, rather than adding heavy material for strength in traditional manufacturing techniques.

>> Read more by Marissa Shieh, ScienceLine, March 27, 2017

Printing out a plane, piece by piece