Additive Manufacturing (AM) -known as 3D Printing (3DP)- has been a successful alternative for manufacturing niche products and prototypes. For Aviation, AM has the potential to emerge from a niche status to become a game changer in aircraft manufacturing  by reducing production costs, increasing product performance, improving supply chain flexibility, and reducing inventory costs.
3DP is not new for aircraft manufacturers. Airbus first 3D printer was installed in 2012. Two years later, a 3DP plastic component made its first flight on an Airbus aircraft . Nowadays, Airbus’ A350XWB flies with 1,000 3D-printed parts . This year, Airbus installed the first titanium 3D-printed bracket on its A350 production . However, Airbus believes this is just the beginning of a transformative technology for aviation.
Impact on costs, product performance and inventory management
3DP benefits are found along the entire supply chain (exhibit 1). First, it increases efficiency in raw materials usage. Since 3DP builds products by addition instead of subtraction, it produces less waste thus lowering costs. Additionally, 3DP reduces tooling costs and shortens task times. A 3D-printer can produce different parts regardless of design and complexity. Under traditional manufacturing, diverse molds and tools are required depending on product characteristics, increasing tooling costs and set up times.
The number of components per product is also dramatically reduced. A General Electric (GE) fuel nozzle consisted of 20 different components. With 3DP, that nozzle is manufactured in one piece , reducing assembly times and costs, but most importantly, enhancing product performance. Reducing components per product improves durability and optimizes weight without compromising reliability. For airlines, higher durability translates into lower maintenance costs and weight reduction into lower fuel consumption and carbon emissions. According to GE, its 3DP nozzle has a 5 times longer lifetime and yearly fuel savings of $1.6M per airline .
3DP also brings improvements in inventory management. Regulations force manufacturers to provide spare parts for long periods after aircraft sales. Airbus stocks a wide variety of spare parts for each aircraft type. The A300/310 aircraft -no longer in production-, requires spares until 2050. Currently, Airbus has 3.5 million spares in stock consuming gigantic storage space and working capital . 3DP, as a “virtual warehouse”, can quickly produce spares on demand, aggressively reducing inventory costs and delivery times (exhibit 2). According to Ernst&Young , aerospace companies will become the 3DP earliest adapters for spare part management (exhibit 3).
Airbus and its competitors, already in the game
Aware of these benefits, Airbus has consistently invested in 3DP, closely working with suppliers to design, test and implement 3DP in its manufacturing line. Recently, Airbus awarded large contracts to 3DP providers for the A350 program (Stratasys ), A320 cabin (Autodesk ) and A320NEO engine (GE ). These contracts position Airbus to meet its short-term deliveries on time while keeping costs down. Airbus long-term commitment in 3DP is centered in APWorks, its subsidiary specialized in industrial AM. APWorks, born in 2013 to respond to technological trends, focuses on innovative design, materials research and serial production. APWorks aims to reduce product weight and shorten manufacturing times.
Airbus is not alone in the 3DP race. Like the A350, Boeing’s B787 Dreamliner also incorporates 3D-printed components . This year, after the Federal Aviation Administration approved the first 3D-printed titanium part for commercial aviation, Boeing signed a contract with Norsk -a Norwegian 3DP supplier- to provide titanium parts for the B787 . The deal is expected to bring savings up to $3M per aircraft . Through HorizonX, Boeing’s newly venture capital arm, the company aspires to accelerate potential transformative manufacturing technologies such as 3DP. Additionally, China’s aircraft manufacturing program, COMAC, has already began test flights with its first commercial plane, the C919, which incorporates several 3D-printed parts . To stay ahead of competition, Airbus should strengthen its 3DP R&D and not over-rely on outsourcing. By focusing on in-house digital design, Airbus could achieve a competitive advantage over Boeing and COMAC.
Simultaneously, Airbus should target the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to make sure that regulations move in line with manufacturing innovations. Airbus needs to both gain approval for new products and convince EASA to update its spare parts regulation to capitalize 3DP benefits. Finally, given that 3DP products require fewer components, Airbus should consolidate its supplier base reducing variability and putting pressure on suppliers to rapidly invest in 3DP.
It is worth noting that there are still concerns regarding 3DP scalability. Manufacturers have been successful in producing low volume orders for plastic parts. Introducing this technology into serial production for metal parts is a titanic challenge and will take time and money. Who should lead this investment, Airbus or its suppliers? Even if 3DP is introduced for mass production, will Airbus capitalize all 3DP cost reductions? How will the other supply chain players react, including suppliers and airlines? Should Airbus reduce aircraft prices to improve its competitive position against Boeing and COMAC?
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