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3D printing paves way to lighter planes

Posted: 08 Jun 2015     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Northwestern University  3D printing  aircraft 

A case study accomplished by Northwestern University researchers has revealed that using 3D printing to manufacture the metal parts of aircraft could offer significant savings in fuel, materials and other resources.

The team, led by Eric Masanet who heads the Energy and Resource Systems Analysis Laboratory at Northwestern, used aircraft industry data to study the life-cycle environmental effects of using 3D printing (or 'additive manufacturing') for building select metal aircraft parts. While 3D printing has begun to be adopted by the airline industry, the study concluded that widespread adoption of the technique to print lighter and higher-performance aircraft parts could significantly reduce manufacturing waste and the weight of the airplane, resulting in fuel and cost saving as well as a reduction in carbon emissions.

"We have suboptimal designs because we're limited by conventional manufacturing," Masanet said. "When you can make something in layer-by-layer fashion, those constraints diminish."

According to Masanet, some of the aircraft parts that offer the most potential for 3D printing include less critical items like brackets, hinges, seat buckles and furnishings. "There are enough parts that, when replaced, could reduce the weight of the aircraft by four to seven per cent," he noted.

If used to the full potential, Masanet sees 3D printed components greatly benefiting the environment in several ways: (1) airplane fuel consumption could be reduced by as much as 6.4 per cent, reducing fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions; (2) manufacturing 3D printed components uses as little as one-third to one-half of the energy currently used in conventional methods; (3)manufacturers would potentially save thousands of tons of aluminum, titanium and nickel that are otherwise scrapped every year.

However, said Masanet, for 3D printing to realise its full potential for estimated aircraft weight savings based on full-scale adoption, current limitations, such as issues with surface quality, residual stresses, repeatability and throughput, need to be addressed. He hopes such studies as his help provide encouragement for further efforts on improving the 3D printing process.

The study was published in the Journal of Cleaner Production.

- Rich Pell
  EE Times Europe

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