Additive technology makes its mark

Markforged’s Central European manager, Gesa Schneider explores trends in manufacturing practices, along with her predictions for the role of additive manufacturing in 2024.

Last year, global events motivated manufacturers across a range of industries to re-think their centralised production models. Based on the headlines so far this year, this trend looks set to continue. The aerospace industry is no exception. The sector has been exploring decentralised models, with the aim of manufacturing key components closer to the point of need.

We’re witnessing increasing numbers of companies integrating technologies like additive manufacturing (AM) into their factory floor operations to work alongside traditional processes. This shift enables flexible and cost-effective manufacturing on-demand, helping aerospace manufacturers to produce intricate parts which traditional methods may find more challenging.

It’s all on-demand

On-shore production and localised manufacturing practices are already providing aerospace manufacturers with greater control, responsiveness, and resilience in the production process. I can only see this accelerating in the coming year.

Gesa Schneider, Central European manager, Markforged
Gesa Schneider, Central European manager, Markforged

I predict we will see greater numbers of designers, engineers and manufacturers adopting AM to design and create more efficient parts, tools and complex components, when and where they need them. The industry has been actively using AM to advance production, and it continues to transform processes on aerospace manufacturer’s factory floors. Here are some examples: 

Tooling – Check gauges are used to verify the quality of parts manufactured. They can be expensive and take a great deal of skilled time to machine. Without them, factories can be faced with downtime due to part quality verification interruptions. We’re now seeing more and more aerospace manufacturers 3D printing these check gauges in-house to help alleviate these concerns.

Engine components – One of the prominent areas where AM is making significant strides is in the manufacturing of engine components, including complex parts such as turbine blades and fuel nozzles. One aviation company has seen real success in this area. Using AM they reduced the number of parts in a single fuel nozzle tip from 20 pieces welded together to one singular piece.

Design and interior components – Airframe design is also being reshaped by AM, and we’re seeing manufacturers using this process for interior components such as cabin parts or the in-flight entertainment systems. The technology allows for customised and lightweight designs, which also helps to support overall fuel efficiency.

End use parts – The manufacturing of replacement nut plates additively is simple, fast and cheap with CAD software and can be printed quickly.

3D printed satellites – Aerospace company, Sidus Space has utilised Markforged technology to build a 3D printed satellite. Markforged’s Onyx FRA material produces components with metal-like strength, which also help to reduce weight and production time. Furthermore, the first prototypes remained intact and functional after a whole year in space!

Smart(er) AM – Additive technology is getting smarter. This is due in large part to advances in connected AM platforms that allow machines to collect – and learn from – information with each build. In essence, AI is helping to solve hardware problems with a software solution, creating new opportunities and challenges for AM.

In the year ahead, we will see further integration of data-driven technologies such as sensors, feedback, analytics, artificial intelligence, and the Internet of Things (IoT) continuing to enhance the quality, reliability, and efficiency of the AM process and products.

Material developments – The AM industry continues to develop and innovate new high temperature tolerant materials that can be used deliver best-in-class performance and to meet demands from the factory floor into flight. 

In 2023, we released Vega, an ultra-high performance carbon fibre filled PEKK for printing critical aerospace parts – from tooling and fixtures to flight-ready production.

Digital twins and simulation – Digital twin technology and simulation tools are integral components of the additive manufacturing (AM) process in the aerospace sector, enhancing efficiency, precision, and overall performance.

Markforged Eiger simulation software allows aerospace engineers to create digital twins and conduct virtual prototyping. This enables them to optimise designs before physical production, minimising the need for costly and lengthy trial-and-error iterations. Engineers can analyse factors such as thermal stresses, distortion, and layer deposition, optimising parameters for temperature, speed, and layer thickness to achieve the desired structural integrity. The software establishes a digital thread by linking design, simulation, and manufacturing data, ensuring traceability. This allows for detailed quality assurance throughout the AM process, comparing predicted performance with actual testing and inspection data to verify component quality.

Faster printing speeds – Smarter AM also means faster AM. In-built calibration and inspection technologies not only optimise part design and accuracy, but help to speed up the 3D printing process. In addition, increased material capacities and automated material changeover capabilities reduce human intervention, helping to achieve the all-important repeatability required for success in aerospace manufacturing.

Faster, more accurate prints reduce the time and cost of AM and increase its ROI, making it even more competitive than traditional manufacturing methods. This acceleration also helps new adopters of the technology to learn, test and iterate through faster prototyping, enhancing the innovation and learning potential of AM.

Sustainability and ESG – Global eyes are already on the aerospace industry with calls for the reduction of carbon emissions. AM’s role in local and on-demand manufacturing can do its part to help manufacturers reduce the monetary and environmental costs of waste, energy consumption.

Additionally, the need for lengthy transportation of components subsequently reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation-related emissions.

Furthermore, the inherent characteristics of AM, such as its ability to manufacture complex designs with minimal material waste, align well with sustainability objectives. But there is more to be done.

Collaboration to innovate

With advancements come new challenges, and two which I believe will have an impact on the adoption rate of AM in the year ahead are regulatory issues and tighter budgets.

To compete in a highly regulated industry, OEMs, MRO service providers and commercial airlines must prioritise safety and performance, while adhering to stringent regulatory guidelines. As we’ve seen demonstrated above, AM presents a solution to help address challenges.

AM will become a more integral part of aerospace manufacturing processes
AM will become a more integral part of aerospace manufacturing processes

While standards bodies like ASTM have developed a range of AM-specific global standards, there is still work to be done. A lack of clear and consistent guidelines, certifications, and quality assurance can pose risks and barriers to widespread adoption of the technology in industries like aerospace. I’m hoping we’ll see all parties come together over the coming year to address these issues and challenges. Collaboration will be essential to establish workable standards.

As it continues to become smarter, faster, more accurate, efficient, and – undoubtedly – more sustainable, AM will become a more integral part of aerospace production lines and manufacturing processes. I believe that in the year ahead, we will see more additive technology at work on factory floors around the world.

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