Gala Spasova
Gala Spasova (Senior Research Analyst)

Organ tissue, buildings, clothes, cars, musical instruments, sugary cake decorations — even cat armour. What can’t 3D printers do? There’s been so much hype about creative uses and scientific breakthroughs powered by 3D printing technology that it’s easy to miss what is actually happening in the industry.


This post is the first in a series dedicated to the transformative effect of 3D printing on a range of industries. To start with, we’re looking at the role of 3D printing technology in commercial aerospace.


Aerospace Industry is one of the Biggest Adopters of 3D Printing

The manufacturing industry has played a major role in making 3D printing what it is today. Global manufacturers such as BMW, for example, have been using 3D printing technology for three decades. Aerospace is one of the biggest adopters of 3D printing, with the industry accounting for almost a fifth of the market.


Source: Wohlers Report, 2018


Fewer Parts + Reduced Weight = Increased Durability?

One of 3D printing’s main advantages is that it simplifies complex parts. With 3D printing technology, a system previously built by combining multiple components can be reduced to a single part. This brings a number of advantages, including easier management and modification and less uncertainty in demand.

GE is a good example. Using traditional manufacturing methods, it would use 20 different parts to construct a fuel nozzle. Now, with 3D printing, the fuel nozzle used in its LEAP engines is a single element. GE says durability has increased fivefold and the part itself is 25% lighter. By layering material only where it’s needed — in pressure points, for example — 3D printing technology significantly reduces weight. In this case, design improvements have resulted in fuel savings of 15%. The 3D printed nozzles are now in mass production and GE expects to produce more than 30,000 of them by the end of 2019.


How Aircraft Manufacturers Are Using 3D Printing

According to Airbus CTO Grazia Vittadini, 3D printing could reduce the overall weight of an aircraft by up to 55%. Airbus is working with Materialise to produce 3D printed plastic parts for its A350 XWB aircraft.

Boeing, meanwhile, is working with GE on the Boeing 777X, which will feature six 3D printed parts inside its GE engines. Besides GE’s fuel nozzle, the engine will also use heat exchangers and separators, fuel mixers and temperature sensors. Boeing is also investing in metal 3D printing company Digital Alloy to get rapid access to low-cost, quality parts. Boeing uses over 60,000 3D printed parts in its products for the commercial, defence and space sectors.


Source: Boeing (777X assembled prototype)

UK manufacturer Rolls-Royce is also integrating 3D printing into its production process. The Advance 3 engine, which will be available in 2025, will benefit from the use of 3D printing technology, such as flexibility of design, part consolidation, reduced weight, and increased part complexity. The finished product will have optimised fuel efficiency and low emissions.


What Does This Mean?

Last year we met Hanan Gothait, founder and CEO of XJET, which uses ground-breaking nanotechnology for 3D printing. Gothait has been at the forefront of 3D printing since the early days, and has done as much as anyone to shape the current industry. He described to us a future in which the aircraft interior is completely redesigned to feature a range of 3D printed parts, such as lightweight seatbelt buckles. As with many parts redesigned for 3D printing, the buckles will not only be stronger and more secure but will also be significantly lighter. While consumers are demanding more amenities on board, airlines are striving to reduce the weight of the aircraft, which is directly related to the level of fuel consumption, especially during take-off.


Source: 3T RPD Ltd./The SAVING Project (lightweight seatbelt buckles)

By using better designed and lighter 3D printed parts, manufacturers can significantly reduce the weight of the aircraft. This will result in lower fuel consumption, greater efficiency, reduced costs and, ultimately, cheaper flights.

When it comes to leveraging 3D printing for industrial production, however, aerospace is not the only trailblazer. Watch this space for our next post in the series, which will focus on the healthcare industry.

If you would like to find out more about IDC’s thoughts on the biggest trends in the 3D printing industry, please contact Galina Spasova.


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