Flying from Prototyping to Mainstream: 3D Printed Aircrafts Top Out at Speeds of 150mph
The aerospace and defense industry accepts additive manufacturing as a viable way to produce innovative prototypes – but can 3D printing really produce complete, complex jets that can withstand speeds of 150 miles per hour?
The aerospace and defense industry accepts additive manufacturing as a viable way to produce innovative prototypes – but can 3D printing really produce complete, complex jets that can withstand speeds of 150 miles per hour? While many manufacturers in the aerospace and defense (“A&D”) industry have been using additive manufacturing (“AM”) for years, few have pushed these capabilities beyond rapid prototyping, preferring more traditional manufacturing methods for mass production. Aurora Flight Sciences (“Aurora”) however, has taken the path less traveled, strategically choosing to adopt AM not only in their rapid prototyping, but also to produce tooling, aircraft parts and complete unmanned air vehicle (“UAV”) systems.
In 2015, Aurora was the first in the A&D industry to produce a functional UAV, complete with a 9-foot wingspan, composed of 80% 3D printed components, proving that AM can be used to produce highly complex jet-powered aircrafts.1 More recently, the U.S. military has used Aurora’s fully 3D printed drones, which have wingspans of up to 132 feet, in Iraq and Afghanistan.2 Aurora’s success with AM clearly highlights the potential of this manufacturing process and deeply implies that all managers should be considering what AM can bring to their operations whether in prototyping or full production.
Founded in 1989 and headquartered in Virginia, Aurora is a manufacturer of advanced unmanned systems and aerospace vehicles. The organization, which has 500 employees and four sites in the US3, is committed to the advancement of autonomous flight and is well known for their innovative UAV systems. It is not only Aurora’s small size that enables them to rapidly develop innovative solutions for the A&D industry. Aurora has strategically positioned themselves as a leader in the industry by fully embracing AM. Aurora believes they will be successful in the coming years because investment in these manufacturing capabilities has given them a unique competitive advantage with respect to their peers. In specific, AM enables Aurora to capture numerous benefits in the future including: (i) unconstrained design capabilities, (ii) reduced time to market through shortened innovation, design and development time, (iii) lower manufacturing costs, (iv) reduced waste and scrap, and (v) ability to create complex, multi-functional, composite structures.1,4 In the long term, Aurora’s outspoken commitment to AM will allow them to continue to be at the forefront of innovation in manufacturing process design.
Aurora has clearly proven the long-term viability of the AM process in production. For example, 3D printing requires no retooling costs or set up time as conventional manufacturing would, as a result, the time between innovation and launch will be highly compressed in the future. Similarly, processes that would have required assembly of over 20 different parts to create one product, now can be constructed in one build using 3D printing.2 And in fact, many larger players in the space have taken notice of Aurora’s achievements and proven potential of their technology. Aurora’s successes have pushed many larger competitors in the industry to grapple with whether they will develop these new competencies in house or acquire smaller, more innovative players like Aurora to keep up. Similarly, growing interest in this technology from larger players has also caused smaller players to grapple with their appetite to stay small and nimble or partner with larger organizations to access more resources and grow exponentially.
In response to growing competitive pressures in late 2017, Aurora was acquired by Boeing and currently operates independently under the Boeing Engineering Test & Technology segment.5 Boeing strategically acquired the company in order to access Aurora’s innovative technology, and as part of a larger insourcing strategy to produce their own composite aircraft parts.6 Boeing’s strategic acquisition of the company raises numerous questions however.
Will Aurora’s historical pace of innovation slow down under larger corporate ownership or will Aurora’s access to Boeing’s larger resources accelerate the organization’s growth? A year after the acquisition, some of these concerns may be coming to fruition as Aurora recently had their $89 million America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, (“DARPA”) contract cancelled after falling behind schedule and failing key flight tests.7 However with new deals on the horizon such as the company’s talks with Uber to build a fleet of taxi aircrafts, this may only be a temporary setback.
Additionally, how will Boeing translate what it has learned with Aurora to other parts of the company – will Boeing redesign their manufacturing systems to capture the full benefits of AM not just in rapid prototyping but also with large production as well? While Boeing has not shared much on this since the acquisition, it seems that in order for the Boeing to extract the true value of this acquisition, it will be key for the organizations to share learnings and expand the AM program well beyond the Aurora segment.
- Wyman, C. (2017, December 14). World’s First Jet-Powered, 3D Printed UAV Tops 150 MPH with Lightweight Stratasys Materials. Retrieved from http://blog.stratasys.com/2015/11/09/aurora-uav-3d-printing/
- D’Aveni, R. (2015, November 16). The 3-D Printing Revolution. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2015/05/the-3-d-printing-revolution
- Who We Are – Aurora Flight Sciences. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.aurora.aero/who_we_are/
- Aurora Flight Sciences Maximizes the Benefits of 3D Printed Composite Tooling. (2017, December 14). Retrieved from http://blog.stratasys.com/2017/04/18/aurora-maximizes-the-benefits-of-3d-printed-composite-tooling/
- Boeing Completes Acquisition of Aurora Flight Sciences. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://boeing.mediaroom.com/2017-11-08-Boeing-completes-acquisition-of-Aurora-Flight-Sciences
- Cameron, D. (2017, October 05). Boeing Deal Targets Flying Taxis. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/boeing-buying-drone-maker-aurora-flight-services-1507208375
- Smith, R. (2018, May 12). DARPA Pulls Plug on Boeing Experimental Electric Plane. Retrieved from https://www.fool.com/investing/2018/05/12/darpa-pulls-plug-on-boeing-experimental-electric-p.aspx
Student comments on Flying from Prototyping to Mainstream: 3D Printed Aircrafts Top Out at Speeds of 150mph
It seems that Aurora has found its competitive advantage in 3D printing and maintains a clear value proposition to attract the likes of Boeing. However, I find it questionable that Aurora was operating independently under Boeing yet you infer that the relationship somehow caused Aurora to lose their DARPA contract. If they are operating independently then would it not be primarily Aurora’s fault for losing the contract, and if not, did Boeing fail to provide Aurora with the proper resources to meet their time constraints or somehow hold them back in another way? If the latter is the case then maybe Boeing simply acquired them to take them off the market and is not serious about utilizing their 3D printing technology.
The video and article feature one Aurora aircraft model that has found success in partnering with the US Military. I am curious what the next market and revenue stream that Aurora will try to serve with their next model. Or potentially their breakthrough AM technology can translate to Boeing’s own manufacturing process?
Great article Kelsey! I am a big believer in the revolutionary impact that AM has the potential to provide in the aviation, and specifically military aviation, space. I’m more bullish on the supply chain implications for forward deployed units than I am for the immediate potential of 3-D printing entire aircraft. The savings from not dragging a “buffer” of spare parts around the world could easily offset the cost of a 3-D printer and the research to make the parts. However, aviation is a wildly regulated space, and flight testing needs to be done for each part in addition to an aircraft as a whole when a new part is added. I’m unsure as to houw the FAA will react to the AM space.
Furthermore, I’m would propose that the Boeing acquisition likely did not have anything to do with the cancelling of the DARPA contract. My assertion is that the government is notoriously slow moving, and cancelling a contract is incredibly hard to do. It is generally a reaction to years worth of documented underperformance by a significant degree as opposed to anything that could have happened over a single year.