Researchers at McCormick Northwestern University have published a case study, concluding that 3D printed parts have the potential to reduce an airplane’s weight by up to 7%.
The team led by Eric Masanet used aircraft industry data for their study published in the Journal of Cleaner Production and funded by the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office. According to its conclusion, additive manufacturing can lead to lighter and high performance parts, resulting in weight as well as material reduction and therefore savings in fuel and money resulting in decreased carbon emission.
Masanet, Professor in Materials and Manufacturing, explains: “We have suboptimal designs because we’re limited by conventional manufacturing. When you can make something in layer-by-layer fashion, those constraints diminish.”
However, he does not anticipate a change to crucial parts of the aircraft such as the wings and engines in the near future, but believes that real potential lies in the replacement of less flight -critical parts, such as brackets, seat buckles, hinges or other furnishings. The weight of a bracket for example, could be reduced from 1.09 kg to 0.38 kg by applying 3D printing technologies.
“There are enough parts that, when replaced, could reduce the weight of the aircraft by 4 to 7 percent,” Masanet explains. “And it could be even more as we move forward. This will save a lot of resources and a lot of fuel.”
According to the case study, the fuel consumption of airplanes could be reduced by as much as 6.4%. Further, a life-cycle analysis reveals that manufacturing through 3D printing technology uses only one-thrid to one-half of the energy used in current conventional methods.
Masanet also realises that additive manufacturing technology still has to overcome technological obstacles to be used to its full extend. Process limitations such as residual stresses, surface quality, repeatability or throughput are current issues to prevent full-scale adoption.
“If we can accelerate the necessary process improvements, then we can start reaping these savings sooner. Maybe then we can start seeing savings 10 years earlier than if we just let the technology progress at its regular rate.”