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.
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 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.
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.