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The 3D printing promise of weight optimization is not about parts, it’s about systems

A key lesson learned talking with aerospace 3D printing companies at PAS 2019, that can be applied to all industrial segments

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The Paris Air Show was a huge success for the largest aerospace players and for many innovative aerospace 3D printing companies. The aviation and space industries are rocketing toward booming growth with no slow down anywhere on the horizon. While additive manufacturing is still just a tiny – to use a euphemism – segment of aerospace manufacturing, all leading companies in aerospace are very much invested in developing it. The reason may be found in one of the largest deals ever closed during the show: the $55 billion in orders that CFM – a joint venture between GE and Safran – received for its LEAP engine. The LEAP engine is super efficient and is enabling a new generation of single-aisle jets – such as the Airbus321neo flown by French operator Le Compagnie in its new all-business flights – to make trips across the Atlantic on a single tank of fuel.

Last April, for instance, a LEAP-engine-powered Airbus A321neo LR loaded with 162 dummy passengers and 16 crew completed a test flight from Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, to the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean that lasted 11 hours and covered 5,466 miles. It was the longest distance flight in the certification process of the A321neo. At the Paris Air Show Airbus formally unveiled a new long-range A321neo, officially designated the A321XLR, which will become available from 2023. The twinjet will have a maximum take-off weight of 101t and a range of 4,700nm compared with the 4,000nm of the current 97t long-range A321LR variant. GE and most operators expect that these efficient single-aisle aircraft will make up the bulk of order for the foreseeable future.

How is 3D printing involved in these achievements

CFM engineers were able to slash the LEAP engine’s fuel consumption by 15% compared with the engine’s predecessor, the CFM56, by using breakthrough materials and technologies, including 3D printing. One of the engine’s smaller parts, the metal fuel-nozzle tip the size of a walnut that sprays fuel into the combustor, is so complex that the only way to make it involves 3D-printing it directly from a computer file. So how can a part this small have an effect so significant on fuel consumption? Weight optimization is not only about the weight of the part itself. By designing a component exactly in the shape and size required to fit into the tightest spaces it is possible to reduce the entire weight of the system around a 3D printed part, be it a manifold, a heat exchanger or an incredibly intricate subassembly, such as the fuel nozzle, and many more similar parts to come.

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is not only ideal for optimizing small parts but – by optimizing a small part’s geometry – it makes it possible to also optimize and dramatically reduce the weight of very large systems.

A few weeks before the Paris Air Show, Australia’s Qantas announced that a yet undisclosed aircraft has “met the challenge” of flying nonstop from Sidney to London (an over 20-hour trip). The aircraft may be undisclosed but it’s likely that it will be powered by GE’s newest GE9X engine, which was the star of the 2019 edition and helped GE ideally celebrate 100 years in the business.

aerospace 3D printing companies
Click on the infographics to enlarge it.

Not only is the GE9X engine the largest jet engine ever built, but – as readers of this website know very well – it is also the most 3D printed jet engine ever.

Weight-optimized parts and precise geometries made it possible for GE to produce an engine that is a lot more powerful than any other that came before it (more powerful even than early rocket engines) and yet weighs less. This means that it also can carry larger planes on longer routes, using up less fuel. Which results in lower emissions and more comfort for the passengers.

Top aerospace 3D printing companies at the Paris Air Show 2019 working on flying 3D printed parts

So which are these parts that will make up the light aircraft of the future? Almost every major tier 1, tier 2 and subcontractor at the Paris Air Show had something to show. You can quickly catch a glimpse of all the major announcements from the show and see some of the additively manufactured parts in our video highlights. Here we will analyze more in-depth what these parts are and what they mean (because while it’s true that images and videos are worth a thousand words, the thousand words remain necessary).

Let’s start with a premise that may seem a bit underwhelming. Of the hundreds of different printed parts on display, the only ones flying in commercial aircraft today are still the nozzles in the LEAP engine (and possibly a couple more). There are, however, dozens or even hundreds of flying parts in military and defense aircraft, including jets, helicopters and drones, and there are many flying parts in satellites and rockets. Getting additively manufactured production parts to fly in commercial jetliners is another ball game. One that – however – everyone involved is set on playing.

Enter Oerlikon

The main reason I went to the Paris Air Show – it was a last minute decision and I wish I had made plans earlier for it – was that I was invited by Oerlikon, a company that is standing out in its effort to advance AM industrialization, especially in the aerospace segment, and share its experience with all aerospace and AM companies that want to take this step. In this effort, Oerlikon’s goals are very much aligned with 3dpbm‘s in terms of raising awareness and understanding of both the challenges and the potential of implementing AM.

At the Oerlikon Chalet, I met with Eddie Andrews, Programme Commercial Manager Additive Manufacturing Aerospace, Defense & Space. Through its network of companies and AM factories around the world, Oerlikon has acquired an immense wealth of data on printing aircraft and aerospace parts. “Our goal is to share this data with companies that want to enter the AM segment but find the initial CapEx too high,” Mr. Andrews explained. “Going from a concept part to an actual flying part is an extremely lengthy procedure. First, the parts need to be imagined, designed and produced, and then the really hard part begins, where the parts and materials need to be tested and certified. New or existing standards need to be implemented or created in order for companies to be able to say that a part is ready to be fit inside their aircraft systems. This has to be done for every single new AM part and material. The largest OEM’s and top suppliers have the means to carry out this process internally. Smaller companies – or those who want to start testing the process on a limited number of parts – can leverage the enormous wealth of experience and data we have built upon additive and also our AM part production services.”

To further prove this point I was taken to the Oerlikon booth, where the company exhibited a larger number of 3D printed aerospace parts than any other company beside leading AM hardware suppliers such as GE Additive, SLM Solutions and Stratasys (for polymers). Parts such as complex antennas, large rocket engine nozzles, satellite brackets were displayed to show the benefits of printing internal profiles and subassemblies. All parts – which in some cases are similar to production parts actually produced for aerospace clients – were optimized for geometry and part consolidation, with the added benefit that Oerlikon specializes in coatings, thus many of the parts are actually further optimized in the finishing process.

Flying machines from all sides

Oerlikon is leading a large group of companies that are working toward industrializing AM for aerospace and aviation in particular. The most relevant ones are certainly the giants of the aerospace world, including Airbus and Safran as well as GE. We’ve covered the LEAP and GE9X projects which directly involve these three giants of the sky. GE is particularly involved through its GE Additive division, which sold several systems during the Paris Air Show, 17 of which will be used by its GE Aviation division to produce thousands of GE9X parts, including engine blades made in titanium aluminide. Other systems were acquired by French-Canadian aerospace part supplier FusiA and by Turkish aerospace part supplier TEI. These are more companies to track.

In terms of metal powder bed fusion, the other key hardware manufacturers that were present directly at the Paris Air Show were the German company SLM Solutions and French company AddUpSLM Solutions announced a very interesting deal signed with Rolls Royce jet engine manufacturing division and in general, the company’s interest in the aerospace segment is well known. AddUp is a somewhat lesser-known French company that also makes metal powder bed fusion systems. It was created as a joint venture between Michelin – the French global leader in car ties – and Fives, a large French machine tool system manufacturer. One of AddUp’s first key applications was the development of a highly automated and efficient production line for car advanced car tires using custom 3D printed metal molds. Now the company is looking to extend its expertise in automating the AM production line into the aerospace segment. Its value proposition is particularly interesting because AddUp has built a network that includes both metal powder bed fusion (through the Fives collaboration) and directed energy deposition (through the BeAM acquisition) and AM service capabilities through its investment in leading French AM service provider Poly-Shape.

Although not directly, EOS was present at the show through a number of ventures the company is invested in through AM Ventures and a large number of adopters of its technology. These include UK-based 3T Additive, a metal 3D printing service provider, and a number of engineering companies that use 3T to produce their aerospace optimized parts. Conflux technologies, for example, is an Australian engineering company that designs aerospace parts to be produced locally for Europe by 3T, thus offering an example of what it means to leverage AM’s global and distributed supply chain.

aerospace 3D printing companies
Some aerospace parts 3D printed by EOS-funded 3T Additive, with the revolutionary Conflux heat exchanger in the spotlight.

Of course, 3T is not the only AM service provider making moves as a supplier of AM parts for the aerospace industry, nor the only engineering company specializing in DfAM. Several other AM service companies and engineering solutions providers are either specializing or expanding into the aerospace segment. Notable ones exhibiting at the Paris Air Show included France based Volum-E, with some great examples of parts shown in the photo gallery above. BeamIT and Aerosoft out of Italy, are both working with EBM technology. Luxemburg-based SATURNE Technology, Belgium-based Any-Shape and France-based Sokaris Ingegnerie stood out among others. Others yet, like Prodways-owned Initial and ATI, also provide AM part production services but they are also active in other segments discussed in the following sections of this article.

The aerospace supply chain is also seeing another very relevant trend. Along with generalist AM services specializing in aerospace part production, there are also several large aerospace part manufacturers and suppliers that are increasingly adopting AM to produce their parts. Two particularly evident cases seen at the Paris Air Show were Germany’s Premium AEROTEC and France’s Lisi Aerospace. Both companies are now producing some of the most advanced parts using additive processes. Lisi Aerospace Directeur Gènéral Christophe Sarrazin was kind enough to take us around the Lisi booth to show us some of the impressive parts that you can see in the photo gallery below.

Binder jetting 3D printed parts, using high precision Digital Metal technology. While these are impressive examples of production capabilities with powder bed fusion, one of the most original and interesting applications was presented by JPB Système, a French company specialized in the production of ready to use lockwireless anti-rotational devices. Initially made for the aeronautic and aerospace industry, these parts can now also be used in the automotive, railways, marine and nuclear industries. JPB is now starting to produce these small, intricate components using binder jetting technology from Digital Metal, in one of the first cases of binder jetting used for part production (tools in this case) for aerospace. It may be an isolated case or the start of something bigger but it will be interesting to track.

Larger parts flying with EBAM, RPM and WAAM

One very notable addition to this year’s event was the presence of several companies producing very large additive parts using different types of arc welding technology. The pioneer in this field is Sciaky, with its unique and advanced EBAM process. Sciaky is still the only company today that is able to sell stand-alone commercial systems to companies that want to bring this kind of production capabilities in-house (we will hear from Sciaky in our upcoming AM Focus webinar). For many years Sciaky was the only company in this field. Now there are some serious competitors.

One is Norsk Titanium. The Norwegian-American company’s business is not selling machines as much as providing AM part production services, leveraging its own plasma arc RPM technology. Norsk made several announcements during the Paris Air Show and was present with an enormous booth to show off its now significant AM production capabilities, which you can see some examples of in the gallery below. French 3D printer manufacturer Proways also began showing its capabilities by leveraging its new systems based on rapid additive forging (RAF) technology, a type of WAAM.

Material matters: titanium, steel and niobium

While the majority of these parts are going to be 3D printed in titanium, other metals are also becoming more and more interesting. Among suppliers, Carpenter Technolgy was one of the key players and headline grabber, striking deals with IAI and BMT to start working on AM part production.

I was lucky to meet the Director of Additive Manufacturing at ATI Specialty Materials, Brian Morrison, who showed me some of the parts that ATI is additively manufacturing today, mostly in titanium. ATI is also working at what most consider the fringe of the already fringe metal AM aerospace 3D printing segment: refractory metals. The niobium nozzle shown below is an example of what can be achieved.

Another very interesting approach in terms of custom materials came from Voestalpine. The Austria-based company has been making significant investments in building an AM-specific framework, producing custom atomized metal power materials specifically for AM applications. Most of Voestalpine’s custom materials are steel alloys which, while they may not be as fascinating as titanium and refractory metals, remain the basis for most AM applications globally. The AMPO range of metal powders from Voestalpine BÖLER now also include E185 and M789, two steel alloys developed specifically for AM demands. The first is a low alloyed steel powder for easy printability. The second is a high-performance steel grade which combines the printability of maraging steel with the corrosion resistance of 17-4PH. And they all come in very cool packaging.

aerospace 3D printing companies

Racing for PEKK and composites

The next final frontier of AM – and from a certain point of view even more fringe than metals – is composites and high-performance polymers for metal replacement – and thus further light weighting – applications. This “battle” was fought out at the Paris Air Show on two fronts: one for powder in SLS and another for material extrusion technology. The first front is the hottest one, with material giant Hexcel presenting its line of HexAM materials and in particular the HexPEKK AM parts, resulting from the acquisition of OPM’s aerospace & defense business. Kepstan PEKK powder, produced by Arkema for laser sintering in the new EOS P 810 systems, is also the key material used by French high-performance polymer experts at Dedienne Multiplasturgy Group to produce composite parts, a World first.

A very large composite part printed on an Ingersoll WHAM system.

When it comes to thermoplastic filament extrusion for aerospace, the leader in FDM technology, Stratasys, has now further consolidated its position in the aerospace 3D printing segment. Stratasys’ offer includes the Fortus F900 AIS – a complete package certified and standardized for the production of in-cabin parts – along with its certified ULTEM 9085 and the new PEKK Antero 800 NA filament materials. Stratasys composite tooling offer is also the only standardized application of 3D printing (albeit within a tooling indirect process) in continuous fiber, prepreg, and fully isotropic composite parts. These will all be implemented and further developed over the next seven-year period through the extended partnership with Boom Aerospace, manufacturers of the next supersonic passenger jetliner. More on this in a dedicated article later on.

Material extrusion 3D printing applications for composite aerospace may be further down the line. When that time will come, however, French company Multistation will be ready to meet demand. The company led by President Yannick Loisance is now the exclusive distributor of two key composite extrusion systems: continuous fiber desktop 3D printer manufacturer Anisoprint and large (actually huge) format composite pellet extrusion manufacturer Ingersoll. Multistation also presented its new ADDITIV3X consultancy service to help companies familiarize with these new systems and materials.

All the pieces of the aerospace AM puzzle

Space, aviation and defense systems are going to be the leading adopters of additive manufacturing and if the Paris Air Show is any indication, this way of making parts is going to become more and more relevant at all levels. Today it remains a tiny niche, with most production parts going into space (satellites and rockets) and defense, while mass production for aviation is still a few years away. But the effects of digitalization in the supply chain are already quite clear and there certainly is no going back, just going up.

Paris Air Show 2019 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing News

Paris Air Show 2019 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing Video Highlights

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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites VoxelMatters.com and Replicatore.it, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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