How 3D printing innovations are propelling aerospace

By Infinite Editorial Team
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Part I of this four-part series examines additive manufacturing in aerospace today and its applications for the future.

Every part, component, and material used to build and fly an aircraft must be sturdy, strong, lightweight, and capable of withstanding extreme temperatures and chemicals. 


Research shows that eliminating just one pound from an airline carrier equates to saving 14,000 gallons of fuel annually. So logic dictates that if a component — from the smallest tray table switch to the largest wing panel — can be replaced with a lighter, cost-efficient alternative material, then it’s worth consideration. 


Aerospace leaders are realizing the efficiencies and advances made possible by additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, including fused filament fabrication (FFF), a type of 3D printing that uses engineering-grade thermoplastic materials. With FFF, engineers can leverage safe, viable, cost-effective materials to print aerospace parts and components that can be easily replicated and even customized. 


The technology is gaining such an enthusiastic following that analysts project the AM market will reach $26.68 billion by 2027, with AM or the aerospace industry accounting for $6.7 billion


As aerospace engineers seek ways to lighten loads, ensure safety and comfort, remain compliant, and optimize the total cost of operational savings, stakeholders continue to circle back to additive manufacturing — finding pragmatic and innovative ways to use components created with FFF in their aircraft.

Aerospace applications today

Additive manufacturing enables companies to create the lightest parts possible; reduce the time needed to produce jigs and fixtures; and simplify maintenance, repair, and overhaul by printing replacement parts on demand. The industrial-printing capabilities of FFF are ideal for low-volume production needs, which is the typical use case for aerospace parts and components. 


And with soluble or sacrificial core applications (meaning, the core is made of water-dissolvable material), engineers have greater design freedom to concept and print complex vents, ductwork, and carbon-fiber components for aircraft carriers. 


Today, Airbus, GE Aviation, and Boeing are all using additive manufacturing to create essential parts. Another company, Boom Supersonic, reports using 300 printed parts in a prototype for its XB-1 supersonic airliner. 


While technology and innovation drive advances in aerospace, challenges with supply chains and logistics often make the process of procuring manufactured parts difficult and inefficient. 


Additive manufacturing is providing tactical solutions, flying in to provide easy-to-replicate, lower-volume products like armrests, air ducts, and tray table latches, to fuel tanks and engine components. These items can be printed to exact specifications — a critical need because aerospace is one of the most highly regulated industries. Every single part and component on a carrier, whether manufactured or 3D printed, must pass rigorous testing. Even airline seats. 


“A manufacturer I met with literally slammed them into a wall to determine if they were strong enough to meet the regulations,” explained Brandon Cernohous, research and development manager, Americas, for Infinite™ Material Solutions. “Anything that goes into the public domain has regulations, and aerospace is the most stringent of all.” 

a woman looking into a 3D printer

Material compatibility in 3D printed aerospace parts

Despite the regulatory hoop-jumping, additive manufacturing is finding its footing. Aerospace compliance requires that 3D printed parts be heat and smoke resistant. This is precisely why materials in the polyaryletherketone (PAEK) family, including polyether ether ketone (PEEK), are widely used for FFF. 


Other materials, like Ultem® 1010 and Ultem® 9085 (also known as polyetherimide or PEI filaments) are also commonly used for aerospace applications because of their chemical-resistance properties, but they pose other challenges. Utlem is difficult to work with and requires support material that, until recently, was only printed with breakaway material. Industry experts have found that using Ultem with a water-only soluble support material like AquaSys® 180 dramatically reduces post-processing product damage. 


Tap-water dissolvable supports are also enabling unprecedented design freedom and flexibility for aerospace engineers, such as the ability to create complex geometries, internal features, thin walls, and curved surfaces. 


For example, AquaSys products can be used with a range of hydrophobic and hydrophilic materials, including high-temperature thermoplastics, such as PEEK, polyether ether ketone ketone (PEKK), polyetherimide (PEI), and polyphenylsulfone (PPSU). These materials are lighter and more resilient than their traditional counterparts and provide cost-effective, procurable alternatives for the industry. And that’s just what’s possible today. 


“Additive manufacturing and the use of soluble support gives engineers more tools than conventional injection molding,” said Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., chief operating officer for Infinite Material Solutions. “There are plenty of applications we haven’t even thought of yet. With additive manufacturing, the sky’s the limit." 

There are plenty of applications we haven’t even thought of yet. With additive manufacturing, the sky’s the limit.
— Jeff Cernohous, Ph.D., Chief Operating Officer, Infinite

New use cases for older aircrafts

While AM is a relatively new process that was only introduced in 1987, the technology isn’t just enabling change for modern-day carriers. Aircraft that are no longer being made, and older models at the end of their lifecycle, need replacement parts to stay in the clouds. However, the tooling and molds necessary to create the parts often no longer exist. 

Additive manufacturing can make it inexpensive and accessible to create parts that were once considered obsolete, which is exactly what drove the U.S. Airforce to 3D print an engine replacement part for one of its B-52 Stratofortress bombers. 

“Aircraft like B-52s are still flying, but it’s difficult to maintain parts for the entire fleet,” explained Brandon Cernohous, production operations manager at Infinite Material Solutions. “Additive manufacturing can keep historic vehicles alive.” 

a formation of planes in the sky

What’s next in additive manufacturing for aerospace

The aerospace industry is enthusiastically advocating for advances in AM, and within the next 30 years, 3D printed parts are expected to replace 90% of the raw materials the industry requires. 


Innovation houses like Infinite Material Solutions are creating industry-first products, opening up the possibility for printing more parts. Caverna® PP, a polypropylene build material with a microporous morphology, is one such material. Caverna PP is a 3D-printed foam that creates intricate structures with a uniform pore size and distribution, offering far-reaching aerospace applications, from high-tech filters to engine components. 


With more materials available, engineers can design and print prototypes and parts quickly and on demand, reducing the costs associated with fulfillment and overhead. 


“As the industry matures, we’ll have an expansive parts catalog, which will empower people to print out what they need, when they need it, and at the location they prefer,” Doerr said. “You have zero inventory when you print your parts as needed.” 

a close up of Caverna foam and a person holding a Caverna sheet

Ready for takeoff

The aerospace industry is evolving, buoyed by the advances made possible by smart technologies, streamlined processes, and human ingenuity. Additive manufacturing enables iteration and rapid prototyping, helping to reduce redundancies, streamline fulfillment, and advance ideation and innovation. Through AM, aerospace can continue to advance, making it possible to be lighter, faster, and more cost-effective with printed parts and components that keep aircraft in the air — and efficiently flying toward more possibilities.

a transparent diagram of a jet engine

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