Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a process that offers many benefits over conventional manufacturing methods for aircraft components due to its ability to reduce weight, manufacture at high speeds with great accuracy and reduce constraints of a typical supply chain by enabling the production of many specialised component using a singular device.

In May 2018, the U.S. Air Force reasserted its position as a leader in Aerospace applications of 3D printing, as they announced plans to invest in supporting the Figure 4 3D Printing Platform designed and developed by 3D Systems, for the purpose of rapid part replacement – more specifically targeted at legacy aircraft where sources of legacy components are scarce.

This is both a demonstration of the power of 3D printing to help sustain Aircraft promoted under The Maturation of Advanced Manufacturing for Low-cost Sustainment (MAMLS) programme, as well as the power of public procurement in the form of this Air Force Research Lab supported scheme.

In the European Union, Additive Manufacturing has now also been present throughout EU innovation support programmes for aerospace for many years, and more recently there were several projects under the Clean Sky Joint Undertaking relating to the development of suitable simulation chains or demonstration of direct manufacturing technology for high strength aluminium alloys. Now the latest Horizon 2020 Work Programme continues this trend by supporting additive manufacturing within its ‘Factories of the Future (FOF)’ stream within the section for Nanotechnologies, Advanced Materials, Biotechnology and Advanced Manufacturing and Processing (5.ii), with specific themes focusing on the development of Advanced materials for additive manufacturing and Pilot lines for modular factories.

The technology is now at the tipping point of maturity in many areas, with UTC Aerospace Systems predicting that between 20 and 30 metal parts qualified and certified for aerospace applications beyond engine parts will be made using additive manufacturing methods in just 2-3 years, with the aforementioned example using 3D printing for sustaining aircraft, showing that the technology is now becoming a serious component of the modern aerospace supply and value chains.

Last month, Etihad Airways Engineering and BigRep also announced their intent to develop what they call an ‘additive manufacturing roadmap for the aerospace industry’, which will focus on developing processes and standards that will cement this method of production in the heart of today’s aerospace industry, with the project focusing on mass produced Airbus products that can offer large efficiency advantages once scaled up.

At this point of maturation, where standards are now taking shape, there are many challenges for industry conformance, but also many opportunities for the potential of AM to be scaled-up in many aerospace contexts across the world. In the coming years, it will be important to monitor how public sector organisations and private firms choose to apply additive manufacturing in unique ways to ensure that the full value of technological progress is captured, and that the standards for the delivery of AM components continues to be improved as it has in recent years.

As the world’s largest aerospace consensus standards developing organization, SAE International is developing aerospace material and process specifications through its AMS-AM, Additive Manufacturing Committee.  Established in 2015 and supported by an FAA tasking letter to assist regulatory authorities in developing guidance materials for AM certification, over 350 global participants from more than 15 countries representing aircraft, spacecraft, and engine OEMs, material suppliers, operators, equipment/system suppliers, service providers, regulatory authorities, and defense agencies are active in the committee.

The initial standardization project covers four specifications for the laser powder bed fusion process for nickel-based alloy 625. These specifications, AMS7000, AMS7001, AMS7002, and AMS7003, are on track to be released in June 2018.  Ten additional metallic specifications are under development addressing plasma arc transfer welding, electron beam powder bed fusion, and laser wire directed energy deposition processes utilizing titanium and nickel-based alloys.

In 2017, a new subcommittee on polymer-based materials was established at the request of the IATA Engineering & Maintenance Group with three documents underway covering the fused filament fabrication process and material characterization. SAE’s Aerospace Materials Specifications support the certification of aircraft and spacecraft critical parts by protecting the integrity of material property data and providing traceability within the aerospace supply chain.

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