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Additive manufacturing in aerospace: how far have we come? Part II

Dr Ross Trepleton looks at the opportunities for additive manufacturing in UK aerospace.

By ATI Comms

19 April 2021 04:00:PM
Read time: 3 mins

Catch up on Part I of this guest blog from Dr Ross Trepleton here.

How big is the opportunity?

Norsk Titanium have estimated that they could print 1000 components on a large civil airframe. MTU has estimated that, by the year 2030, up to 15% of a Pratt &and Whitney engine could be printed. More recently, BAE Systems put its supply chain “on notice” saying that 30% of the Tempest aircraft will be 3D printed. For structural components or installations, 3D printing can enable light weighting, component consolidation and sometimes also reduced space claim. The biggest gains, and where we have seen some of the most rapid developments, is within systems for heat and fluid management. Here 3D printing can enable the physical benefits listed, and also deliver better product performance. The case for 3D printing for heat and fluid management is therefore compelling– assuming that the barriers to adoption (production costs, cost of qualification) can be overcome.

Alert to this potential, the aerospace Primes and Tier 1 suppliers have been investing substantial sums in the technology. BAE Systems opened a new Product Development & Process Development Centre in Samlesbury in 2017. In 2019, Airbus qualified their metal powder bed processes and production facilities in Filton under Part 21G approval and are now producing flying parts. Meggitt invested in the additive manufacturing design and make company HiETA. Later in 2021, GKN Aerospace will open its new £32m Global Technology Centre in Bristol where additive manufacturing will be a focus.

During 2020, we trawled through the web to try and estimate the number of metallic aerospace components (part numbers) that have been certified for flight – either for flying test beds or serial production. It is not that many! We estimated that in total around 30 separate metallic part numbers would have been certified by late in that year. We expect this might increase to 50 or so in 2021. In those terms, the growth of additive manufacturing in aerospace is not yet exponential. However, it is interesting to look at the number of components that it replaces. The 30 metallic additive parts certified to date replace more than 50 parts. GE is aiming to certify 12 printed components on their GE Catalyst engine in the near future, replacing 855 components, and pushing the total number of metal parts replaced up from more than 50 to around 1000 in one year.

Covid has represented a massive setback to the aerospace sector globally. The lasting impact on additive manufacturing is not yet clear. In general, aerospace primes appear to be decreasing spend on medium term innovation – like additive manufacturing – to focus on immediate and essential business activity but also on new products for new platforms. Airbus has announced their ZEROe programme backed by research and development funding from governments. Rolls-Royce has set an ambition to enable the sectors in which they operate to reach net zero carbon by 2050 through development of new products and technologies. In parallel, innovative start-ups around the world are building new solutions for urban air mobility and electric flight including companies like Vertical Aerospace and Zero Avia. Reaction Engines and Boom Supersonic are exploring additive manufacturing for supersonic (and hypersonic!) flight. With these new aircraft, designers are likely to move towards greater integration of air frame, systems and propulsion.

The disruptive innovation in the sector and the greater integration of air frame and systems represents a major opportunity for additive manufacturing but, to exploit it, the additive manufacturing community may well have to go faster itself. In the space sector, Space X and Relativity Space are using 3D printing to reduce their product development cycles, but for space applications the burden of proof relating to human safety is not as high as for the traditional commercial aerospace sector. To take advantage of this disruption, and to maintain momentum in aerospace through this downturn, the additive community must be ready to push into these areas. The process rules and machines must be adequately robust to permit the rapid delivery of functional prototypes. Production costs, which have dropped by around 75% in the last ten years, must continue to fall. Routes must be developed for rapid qualification, and for read across of validation data from one product-process combination to another.

Within the UK, Government support must continue to ensure momentum isn’t lost. Other countries are investing public funds in AM, knowing that the first countries to establish their end-to-end AM supply chain have the opportunity to become long-term beneficiaries for this rapidly developing global market. With aerospace a major beneficiary of these government investments, the UK is at risk of losing competiveness both within AM and the aerospace sector, just as the technology moves past the tipping point as an established process for component manufacture. By acting now there is an opportunity for the UK aerospace sector to take a leading role in the long term exploitation of AM for future aircraft at a component and system level.

It has been incredible to be part of the efforts of the UK’s National Centre for Additive Manufacturing and the journey of the aerospace sector over the last decade. Clearly we are only scratchingaping the surface of what additive manufacturing can do and I’m extremely excited to see how AM enables the transition to sustainable aviation.

DRAMA is funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and is supported by the Aerospace Technology Institute. For more information on the DRAMA project, consortium members and NCAM, please visit ncam.the-mtc.org.


With thanks to Dr Ross Trepleton and the team from NCAM.