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3D Printing and the Race for Air Domination

3D Printing and the Aviation Industry

When most people hear about 3D printing, we think of smaller items that you can use around the house. But the concept of 3D printing is not limited to knick-knacks or products that you can use around the house. There are very real commercial and military uses for 3D printing – and the aviation industry is a great place to look for those answers. It is incredible how aero engineers are using 3D printing as a means for obtaining better product design and quicker manufacturing for military aircraft and accessories.

Satellite Antenna Bracket, Customer: Thales Alenia

3D Printing and the Aviation Industry

It was in 2016 when we saw the first aircraft that was made using 3D printing. At the time, we did not realize the connection between 3D printing and military aircraft, but it was obvious. Airbus introduced us to an aircraft that was made exclusively with 3D printing. The entire structure weighed 21kg and was about four meters in its length.

The first observers looked at it with some admiration, but got the impression that it was little more than a model airplane. The other planes on show were so huge in comparison that not much attention was paid to the 3D printed model. But it showed us the future – and a future where 3D printing could replace regularly manufactured products on planes and military aircraft.

3D Printing’s Impact on Manufacturing of Military Aircraft

While we are not going to see an entire military helicopter or airplane 3D printed anytime soon, printing replacement parts and accessories is already very common. For instance, it is well known that the United States military uses 3D printers to create turbine blades and similar parts for tanks and aircraft. These parts offer significant cost savings and flexibility to the military. And in a field where every detail is so important, being able to print a spare part instead of needing to order it can save time, money and lives.

And it is not just about printing out entirely new blades and spare parts – but rejuvenating the present ones. For instance, existing turbine blades are taken and put through a 3D printer, with new material being added all around the blade. Any excess material can be removed through a separate process, and you are left with a perfect turbine blade that will work even better than the original – at a fraction of the cost of a new part.


Mars Rover Wheel

NextIntent and the Mars Rover Wheel

Printing on the Spot

One of the reasons the military is so excited about the impact of 3D printing is its versatility. When a turbine blade or Harrier aircraft part stops working, or is completely damaged, it means having to order or manufacture a part at some facility hundreds of miles away. But when you have aircraft and tanks in the field, or on bases around the world, you need those parts right away.

3D printing offers that solution. The merging of 3D printing and military aircraft means that you can have those Harrier aircraft parts printed out on the spot – saving several weeks or months of downtime to the Navy and other army branches. Instead of having to wait weeks, the part was done overnight, and the aircraft was ready to take to the skies again.

We have also seen several military grade 3D printed drones. And with armies relying on drones in greater frequency, it is easy to see them taking up the printing of these nifty yet deadly vehicles.


What is the Future for 3D Printing and Aviation?

The usefulness of 3D printing with military aircraft is already here, but we believe 3D printing can offer the entire aviation industry so much more. From replacing older parts on commercial airliners, to making lighter and more durable parts on aerospace vehicles, the options are endless. It is all about honing the technology and using it in the most effective way!

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