Aerospace parts are extraordinarily complex to manufacture and need to be structurally sound to meet the highest quality assurance standards. To create a safe and functional aircraft, manufacturers must ensure robust airframes, redundancy for critical flight systems, reliable propulsion, and more. Prototyping is essential in the manufacture of aerospace structures, and hands-on manipulation is crucial for evaluating the function, form, and fit of the assembly. In this article, we’ll explore the role of additive manufacturing in aerospace and its potential for future innovation.

What is Additive Manufacturing?

Many aerospace manufacturers are increasingly turning from traditional manufacturing processes to additive manufacturing and 3D printing to reduce costs and overcome conventional manufacturing challenges. Additive manufacturing is a unique fabrication process in which material is added to a 3D object’s structure one layer at a time. The process is based on printing CAD data or a digital 3D model. Additive manufacturing is different from traditional or subtractive manufacturing, in which the material is placed into a mold to harden. Once the material cools or dries, it’s removed from the mold, and any excess material is removed to create the final product.

Below is a general comparison of the steps involved in a traditional manufacturing process with those of additive manufacturing, which has fewer manufacturing steps.

Traditional Manufacturing Process

  • Design for manufacturing (DFM)
  • Vibrational analysis
  • Iteration
  • Manufacturing
  • Testing
  • Iteration

Additive Manufacturing Process

  • Design
  • Pre-processing to verify if the design can be printed
  • Iteration
  • Manufacturing

A More Detailed Process of Additive Manufacturing

Additive Manufacturing Workflow_Avior

Is Additive Manufacturing the Same as 3D Printing?

Additive manufacturing is the same as 3D printing and involves creating and printing three-dimensional parts or prototypes. Objects are created by depositing material layers based on CAD software data that dictates how much material is deposited and where it’s deposited. However, “additive manufacturing” is mostly associated with industrial and commercial applications, while “3D printing” is commonly associated with consumer and recreational applications.

Additive manufacturing allows the evaluation of more complex parameters, including dimensions, ergonomics, and precision of parts and prototypes. This makes it ideal for sectors that emphasize quality and timing in the production processes, such as the aerospace industry.

Additive manufacturing also supports high levels of efficiency, reliability, and precision with room for modifications during the design and verification phases of the prototype. It can manufacture in various materials, including metals, enabling aerospace manufacturers to tackle more complex projects with different technologies, such as Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), Powder Bed Fusion (PBF), and Material Jetting (MJ). It offers endless possibilities for creativity, and the versatility of the machinery facilitates the realization of customized parts and materials with complex geometric structures.

How the Aerospace Industry Uses Additive Manufacturing

The aerospace industry was among the earliest commercial adopters of additive manufacturing and 3D printing. Indeed, many suppliers, OEMs, and government agencies have embraced 3D printing for decades, and the latest generations of commercial airplanes run with 1000+ 3D-printed parts.

Here are some key applications of additive manufacturing in aerospace.

1. Tooling

Aviation companies manufacture low-volume components using composite parts. This process requires layup tools, cores, mandrels, and drill guides. Manufacturers usually invest several months and thousands of dollars when these components are CNC machined. And when changes occur later on, costs rise significantly, and delays mount.

Thanks to additive fabrication, composite tooling is streamlined. The layup tools cost significantly less and are ready for use in as little as 24 hours, meaning that changes are no longer a serious issue. Additive manufacturing also accommodates hollow aerospace composites, eliminating tooling bucks and two-piece clamshell tooling. By moving from traditional methods to composite tooling with Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), manufacturers can substantially improve efficiency and minimize costs.

Instead of using machined tools to form aluminum sheet metal for structural elements, aircraft manufacturers are now using polycarbonate tools that can withstand hydroforming pressures in the range of 3,000 to 6,000 psi when forming structural parts. You can program an FDM part in a matter of minutes as opposed to several hours to write a CNC program.

Additive manufacturing for tooling

2. Prototyping

Additive manufacturing in aerospace eliminates the need to design molds and outsource production. This allows aerospace engineers to design and print product prototypes in a fraction of the time it would take with traditional fabrication methods. It also allows the creation and testing of prototypes faster, speeding up time to market and enhancing competitiveness. Prototyping is especially helpful for complex geometries that are expensive and time-consuming to create on a CNC machine.

3. Production

Modern 3D printing technologies produce durable, stable end-use parts by bypassing the production line altogether. Additive manufacturing uses a range of materials, such as high-performance thermoplastics, to generate parts with predictable chemical, mechanical, and thermal properties.

And since low-volume production is a market segment that hasn’t been covered well, production costs can quickly skyrocket. It often makes more sense for aerospace companies to do things in-house instead. With additive manufacturing, manufacturers can print various components like air ducts right off their 3D printers and use them as a finished part directly on the aircraft.

Top 5 Benefits of Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace

Additive manufacturing offers numerous benefits to the aerospace industry, including:

1. Rapid and Efficient Prototyping

By eliminating the need to design molds and outsource parts production, aerospace engineers can quickly and efficiently design and print prototypes in a fraction of the time it would take with traditional fabrication methods.

2. Complex Part Designs

Various aerospace components, such as helicopter parts and turbine engines, require highly complex geometric structures in tight spaces. Instead of creating small, intricate parts separately and combining them later, design engineers can create 3D models of the whole structure using printing CAD data. The 3D printer can then create one seamless part with all the complex geometries and intricate internal dimensions, with no assembly required.

3. Lightweight and Stronger Parts

One of the highest costs in the aviation industry is fuel. The best way to minimize fuel consumption is to reduce the aircraft’s overall weight by using lighter parts. Additive manufacturing allows aerospace engineers to create lightweight parts without sacrificing structural integrity.

With additive manufacturing and 3D printing, design engineers can create entire parts with hollow centers and interior components, eliminating weak, vulnerable joints. Additive manufacturing also leverages composite materials very well, making the final part exceptionally strong in the required direction.

4. Product Development Cost Reduction

Additive manufacturing reduces the time to create prototypes and can also reduce the overall product development cost. The fabrication process is typically fast and efficient, allowing aerospace manufacturers to create components in-house in a fraction of the time and cost it would take with a standard production line. This also reduces the need to have several parts on hand or to maintain extensive storage facilities. Although the initial costs associated with additive manufacturing are significantly high, the cost-savings over the long term far outweigh these preliminary expenses.

5. Waste Reduction

Unlike conventional manufacturing, where material waste can be as high as 98%, additive fabrication minimizes material waste. Material is added and not subtracted, which drastically reduces material waste and helps save money on production costs. The aerospace industry also has a notoriously long supply chain. Additive manufacturing eliminates the need to stockpile large quantities of components in warehouses, which is another cost and logistical concern that leads to significant waste.

Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace: Past, Present and Future

The first 3D-printed aircraft parts were in an Airbus test aircraft in 2014. A tiny titanium bracket was used as part of the pylon to secure the engine. Since then, additive manufacturing has gained popularity rapidly. It’s a great way to maximize production output, reduce costs, and shorten time-to-market.

Today, 3D printing is frequently used in the aerospace industry for tooling design and part manufacturing. Some examples include:

  • Tooling for the manufacture of wing edges and flaps
  • Tooling for manufacturing jet’s horizontal stabilizer
  • Tooling for fuselage components
  • Aircraft interior components
  • Engine components & parts
  • Airplane wing brackets
  • Engine fuel nozzles
  • Gearbox parts
  • Locking shaft for aircraft doors
  • etc.

As the demand for commercial aircraft increases, 3D printing can help manufacturers with an intimidating stockpile of orders minimize their production time. Additive manufacturing simplifies the production process for interior cabin components, fuselage components, engine and turbine parts, and parts with defined aerodynamic properties in a shorter time and at a lower cost. On-demand manufacturing also allows easy customization and part consolidation, allowing aerospace manufacturers to shorten their time-to-market significantly.

Additive manufacturing is playing an increasingly important role in the future of aircraft fabrication, from prototyping and repair to research and development and parts production. Advances in technology and materials are making it possible to print larger and stronger parts, which is driving the adoption of 3D printing for aircraft production. As technology evolves, additive manufacturing continues to transform the entire aerospace industry.


Additive manufacturing in aerospace enables the creation of customized, lightweight, and structurally sound aerospace parts quickly, efficiently, and cost-effectively. It’s no wonder many companies are turning to additive manufacturing for aerospace applications, such as tooling, prototyping, and production.

Additive manufacturing and 3D printing will continue transforming the aerospace industry in many ways, thanks to its numerous benefits, such as weight reduction, stronger parts, rapid and efficient prototyping, complex parts designs, and product development cost reduction. As more aerospace companies shift from conventional manufacturing to additive manufacturing processes, more focus will be on the capability to print CAD models.

Avior prides itself on using the latest technology for safe and efficient tooling and prototype development at a low cost. We specialize in the development of composite aircraft parts and lightweight structures. Do you have questions about our product development and design services? Please feel free to contact our team of qualified aerospace engineers with your needs. They will answer all your questions and find a solution that will meet your unique requirements.