Printing Aircraft Parts - Flying with Copied Components

The aerospace industry has embraced 3D-printing (also known as ‘additive manufacturing’), a new and cost-effective technology, as a way to create aircraft parts, tooling and other components for the aerospace industry. This technology has been around since the mid-1980s, but has recently gained renewed interest due to the advancement of this process. Already in use in many industries, design engineers focus this technology on creating prototypes for products with small production requirements.

First, A VERY Condensed Background

Additive manufacturing (we will use this term interchangeably with the newer/sexier term ‘3-D printing’) is a set of technologies which uses a sequential layering process to produce an object. Subtractive manufacturing (especially machining) could be referred to as the ‘customary method’, since material is either forged, shaped, filed, etc., into a final product or assembly, as opposed to additive manufacturing, wherein layers of raw material are built up to create something. This has the potential to save raw materials, since solid chunks of metal would not need to be milled (for example), as well as producing potentially lighter components, reducing lifecycle costs for aircraft operators.

This technology has made continuous advancements as it expands into new markets, even reaching low-cost use in the consumer market and low-cost business environments. Perhaps the aviation MRO market could be next.

Aerospace Use of Printed Parts

Various applications in aerospace have made use of this technology already, mostly for low-volume or rapid prototyping/manufacturing applications. Notable examples include the NASA Mars Rover project, which created about 70 specialty parts made of thermoplastics, some of which would have had prohibitive costs otherwise. Other aerospace uses have been on Bell Helicopter Osprey heavy-lift tilt-rotor, and Piper Aircraft for its new Altaire single-engine jet. SelectTech Geospatial developed and built a fully-functional drone aircraft with a four-foot wingspan using 3-D printing in two weeks, saving four weeks design work and translating into significant savings.

In late 2012, GE Aviation purchased a company called Morris Technologies which had previously spent considerable resources to acquire a 3-D printing capability. GE is expected to use this to ‘print’ components for jet engines, specifically in the LEAP jet engine. According to the GE press release, Morris Technologies uses a number of 3-D printing machines, all of which work by using a digital description of an object to build it in physical form, layer by layer. One of these technologies is laser sintering, which spreads a thin layer of metallic powder onto a build platform and then uses a laser beam to fuse the material, which is repeated as needed to create the final object. This method is capable of fabricating various metal parts, including those composed of aerospace-grade titanium.

There are many other industry announcements concerning 3-D printing use, but little of this has directly been aimed at the aviation aftermarket.

How 3-D Printing Could Upend the MRO Supply Chain and Spare Parts Markets

It’s easy to envision a world where industries which have an ‘aftermarket sub-industry’ to service long-life products would make use of on-demand 3-D printing manufacturing capabilities to reduce costs. This new process would cut the costs of carrying expensive inventories and transporting parts globally. These costs can be significant, and airlines and operators have been pushing back on the OEMs, MRO and parts service providers to absorb inventory expenses for some time now. With the present technology and processes, lower-cost providers are only able to drive down costs to a certain point. Alternatively, 3-D printing injects a disruptive technology into this entire industry.

If companies could produce certain types of components in an on-demand 3-D printing facility close to where their customers are, and when needed, the savings could be significant. This would only work for certain types of aircraft parts, support equipment or tooling (driven by complexities, raw materials needed, etc.), but one can certainly envision airlines and operators, which already purchase PMA parts, to consider using 3-D printed parts (i.e., 3D-PMA). This could be an OEM-sanctioned PMA of on-demand creation of spare aircraft parts.

In fact, aerospace manufacturers would like to make use of ‘contract factories’ such as those which produce a majority of the personal consumer electronics and computers in the world today. Apple invests heavily into the design and marketing of products and outsources the production and assembly of all its products. While high-volume, newer-design aircraft parts may not be economical to produce outside of a captive high-volume manufacturing facility, the older, low-volume and out-of-production parts are prime candidates. Companies shy away from holding inventory of low-volume parts for the obvious reasons, so why do so in this day and age?

‘Contract’ parts operations could license the intellectual property for 3-D printable parts and have facilities in key global MRO centers supply service providers with on-demand, fully-licensed spare parts. Manufacturers would surely embrace the idea of working with such service providers. These service providers would manage the manufacturing, distribution and handling of certain aircraft parts utilizing the new on-demand 3-D printing technologies.

Potential Pitfalls

OEMs carefully guard their intellectual property in today’s world, worried that third parties will attempt to undercut pricing utilizing reduced labor costs and overhead. Maintenance manuals and drawings have been a battleground for many years now, but PMA parts have made serious in roads into the commercial market. If 3-D printing were to spread to remote locations controlled by third parties, the CAD drawings and data would need to be secured even moreso due to the fact that the non-OEMs barriers to manufacturing are reduced dramatically. Cyber security of IT systems, applications, databases and data communicated over networks would become ever more important.

Another potential pitfall, already a problem today, is suspected unapproved parts (SUPs). If anyone obtains detailed drawings and information on certain types of parts, it becomes much easier to manufacture an unapproved part with the new technology. Since it will be nearly indistinguishable from an approved part (ignoring serial numbers, and FAA 8130-3 paperwork, etc.), it poses a serious problem. The industry would need to address traceability issues and regulators would need to modify some of their policies and guidance.

As with any advancement, there are always issues to address, but none of these are insurmountable.

The Brave New World of MRO

The MRO industry is in a great state of flux today, from the onslaught of software to manage and handle large amounts of data, to cyber security needs of eEnabled aircraft and assurance of a secure workforce and facility. The confluence of data-driven software, increased use of communications applications driven by NextGen/SESAR, new-generation aircraft, and the spread of technologies such as 3-D printing are changing the aviation business in ways not envisioned a few years ago.

Fortune always favors the bold and opportunities for companies which are best able to take advantage of technologically-driven changes will present themselves. 3-D printing goes hand-in-hand with information technology due to the large amount of data CAD and engineering systems needed to create a part. The need to handle such large amounts of data securely will undoubtedly drive OEMs to work with service provider firms that they trust, but also those that can properly manage distribution of 3-D-PMA parts.

No matter how and if any of these scenarios ever take hold, the ensuing turmoil will benefit those who are best able to manage it.

John Pawlicki is CEO and principal of OPM Research. He also works with Virtual Security International (VSI), where he consults to the DOT’s Volpe Center, handling various technology and cyber security projects. He managed and deployed various products over the years, including the launch of CertiPath (with world’s first commercial PKI bridge). Pawlicki has also been part of industry efforts at the ATA and other related groups, and was involved in the effort to define and allow the use of electronic FAA 8130-3 forms. He recently completed his writing of the ‘Aerospace Marketplaces Report’ which analyzed third-party sites that support the trading of aircraft parts. For more information, visit OPMResearch.com.

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