Rise of 3D Printing in Aviation a Big Plus for Cost Management

The use of 3D printed parts on airliners is taking off, particularly in China where the technology has been recognized by the aviation industry following the successful maiden flight of the first China-built commercial airliner.

“Outsourcing 3D printing services will save the initial investment cost and enables  manufacturers to focus on product development,” says Wendy Mok, Research Manager of IDC’s Imaging Printing and Document Solutions research.

“Moreover, individual suppliers could provide services and parts according to their product portfolios. Such collaborations will help improve the overall product quality. This business model also provides 3D printer vendors a point of penetration.”

The C919 took its maiden flight on 5th May, 2017 at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. This marks a historical moment in China’s aviation industry. C919 was developed by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd (COMAC), who used 3D printing technologies and specialty metals like titanium alloys in the developments of the airliner.

COMAC designed and assembled C919 in Shanghai while the parts of the airliner were manufactured by different suppliers in China. Front parts and wings were made in Chengdu and Xi’an. The main body parts were made in Nanchang.

“The domestic demand for 3D printed parts will grow with expectations that the orders of 570 units of C919 delivered by COMAC in the future, coupled with an increase in localization rate,” says Mok.

Suppliers of C919 parts have proven the value of adopting 3D printing in the manufacturing process. Metal 3D printers of foreign brands were used by FalconTech, who supplied a total of 30 metal 3D printed parts to C919.

Financial burden

Due to its reliability and numerous successful use cases in related industries, imported 3D printers have held a significant competitive advantage over domestic ones in China’s high-end manufacturing sectors.

However, it could create financial burden and resources allocation problems to the manufacturers who carry different 3D printers.

Mok said that the local aircraft makers will not be the only ones to benefit from the growing aviation industry, with foreign companies also looking at China’s airliner market. Boeing is planning to build a facility in China while Airbus have started to assemble their A320s in Tianjin.

“Parts supplied by foreign companies could be made in China as well. The huge domestic demand on airliners is attracting more market players and competition. This will further push the growth of 3D printing industry in terms of both hardware and materials,” Mok added.

The “Made in China 2025” master plan sets the routes for China to radically transform its traditional manufacturing economy. The successful maiden flight of C919 has demonstrated China’s ambitions and determination to compete with the high-end manufacturing sector in the West.

The “Made in China 2025” master plan focuses on 10 sectors – one of which is the development of aerospace equipment, as well as 3D Printing. The government recognizes that 3D Printing is a strong enabler to China manufacturing’s overall growth.

3D printed titanium parts were installed on C919 to reduce the airliner weight and increase its safety. Twenty-eight cabin door parts and two fan inlet structural parts were installed on C919. The existing parts on C919 were largely made in China, or around 60% vs the original target of only 10%.

However, critical parts were still made by foreign suppliers namely CFM International, Liebher-Aerospace, FACC and Honeywell. CFM International supplied the jet engines and Liebher-Aerospace made the landing gear.

Honeywell made the flight control systems, wheels, brakes, auxiliary power units and navigation systems while FACC supplied the cockpit.

The next target is to increase the parts made locally to 90% and install made-in-China jet engines by 2025. The aggressive development of China’s aviation industry will lead to increasing demand for 3D printers and metal powders.

“We will see more use cases on the adoption of 3D printing technologies in the aerospace industry. For instance, General Electric (GE) acquired two metal 3D printer manufacturers, Concept Laser and Arcam, in which they have been providing 3D printers to aircraft parts manufacturers. Jet engine manufacturer Rolls Royce is one of Arcam’s users. Norsk Titanium produces the first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved 3D printed structural titanium components for Boeing Dreamliner,” says Mok.


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