Additive manufacturing (AM) is an innovative manufacturing process that utilizes 3D model data to join materials together layer by layer in order to create an object . Contrary to the traditional method of subtractive manufacturing, which creates objects by beginning with a block of material and subsequently cutting pieces away, AM presents a number of process advantages that organizations are beginning to take notice of, specifically within the aerospace industry.
The Boeing Company (Boeing), the world’s largest aerospace company, is one of the organizations at the forefront of AM innovation, having installed over 50,000 AM-produced parts within its commercial, space, and defense programs . Boeing continues to try to find ways to increase AM within its organization, due to the numerous advantages that AM brings to its processes. These advantages are primarily associated with the following:
- Cost Reductions – A considerable portion of cost savings associated with AM is the ability to reduce the length of Boeing’s supply chain, whether by bringing certain manufacturing processes in-house or simply decreasing the time of production. According to research, AM can reduce lead times up to 80%, substantially reducing inventory carrying costs . The AM process also results in a substantial reduction in waste, as it requires roughly 25% of the energy and 10% of the raw materials than that of a traditional manufacturing process . These gains in efficiency are primarily associated with the layer by layer approach, allowing for optimal utilization of resources.
- Complex Design Opportunities – Due to the complex nature of the parts within the industry, each part typically requires a great deal of individual components that are connected by fasteners at the end of the manufacturing process. Each of these separate connections ultimately reduce the part’s reliability . Due to the flexibility that AM provides, Boeing is able to produce these complex parts without having to build each separate component, limiting the number of connections. This has allowed Boeing to develop parts that are lighter in weight and more reliable than the parts manufactured in a traditional manner. Figure 1 demonstrates the innovative design possibilities of AM .
Figure 1. Right side of each arrow demonstrates the improved part design when using AM .
In the near term, Boeing has made great strides in continuing to build out its AM capabilities, most notably with its investment in Digital Alloys, a US Company developing high-speed, multi-metal AM systems utilized in the production of complex parts for aerospace and other industries. Digital Alloy’s patented Joule Printing technology avoids the cost and complexity of existing power-based AM systems and can rapidly combine multiple high-temperature alloys into each part . This investment serves as a complement to Boeing’s existing relationship with Norsk Titanium, where the companies have implemented the first titanium structural components developed through AM processes . In the medium term, Boeing expects to continue capitalizing on strategic partnerships and investments, focusing its efforts on making additional advancements in speed and scale in order to capture customer value . Through this combination of strong partnerships and AM capability developed internally, Boeing expects to sustain continuous advancements amongst its competitors going forward.
Although Boeing has made significant advancements in AM within the aerospace industry, it needs to address the risk associated with the implementation of these parts in order to maintain its position amongst the forefront of innovation. Due to the stringent safety standards within the aerospace industry, a lack of understanding on the effects of AM processes on alloys has raised concerns amongst regulators, leading to a delay in commercialization of parts. One key area of focus has been the understanding of the aging of AM alloys. Due to limited research on these parts, organizations within the aerospace industry have not been able to make regulators comfortable with this topic. This has led to a majority of parts being restricted to noncritical use . As a result, Boeing must focus on obtaining clear data on the useful life of AM-produced parts. A potential way to obtain this information in the near term would be to conduct a set of simulations internally, stress testing the general durability of each of the parts. Additionally, a more long term approach will be to closely monitor the replacement and failure rates on installed parts. Such statistical evidence will allow Boeing to make regulators more comfortable and potentially mitigate the hindrance of process improvements in the future.
As Boeing continues to make strides in the advancement of AM, what do you see as the biggest obstacle in Boeing’s way for complete commercialization of these products? Do you think that Boeing has taken the correct steps to date to allow it to make sustained innovations within AM?
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