Your aircraft is grounded thousands of miles away. You’ve tried all your contacts and no-one can help out, so you’re hoping the ridiculously complicated plan you’ve come up with just to get your fragile part there is going to work out.
Sound familiar? How about this scenario instead: what if you could just manufacture your own replacement part right there, on demand and on time?
Welcome to the world of additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing. It’s real, it’s out there and eventually it’s going to revolutionise the commercial aviation parts aftermarket.
Like many game changing innovations, the technology has been around for a while, quietly improving itself under Moore’s Law (the concept that technology roughly doubles in capabilities every two years) while other innovations such as the internet and smart phones have grabbed the headlines. But depending on who you listen to, 3D printing is just as important, and certainly has the potential to disrupt global supply chains in every industry. Why would you spend time, money and shrinking resources making and transporting products halfway around the globe when you could simply make them on demand at the point of consumption? No waste, no stale inventory and no long lead times.
In aviation, we are now at the stage where industry leaders are heavily investing and including 3D printing in their future manufacturing strategies.
GE are early adopters, each CFM LEAP engine contain 19 ‘printed’ fuel nozzles and they predict 100,000 of these type of parts will be manufactured this way by 2020.
In four years, Airbus has progressed from printing a single titanium bracket to 1000 AM produced parts for the A350-XWB production. The Company has heavily invested in ULTEM 9085, a thermoplastic resin with high strength-to-weight ratio ideal for use in the aviation industry.
So, going back to the original scenario, how can we benefit from this technology in an AOG situation? Before we get too excited and order one on Amazon for every Engineering location, let’s consider some facts:
- It’s complicated – at its current stage of development, 3D printing can successfully produce single parts made from one material. But a complex flight deck computer or an APU? That’s still many years away.
- Airworthiness – how would a freshly made part be inspected and tested to the manufacturers standard at a remote location?
- Copyright laws – someone owns the intellectual property
- Trade laws – by making an expensive product within a country, what trade laws are being broken?
So while there is no doubt the industry will see an impact from AM in the near future, in an AOG situation you’re still going to need your suppliers and friendly airline contacts for a good few years yet!