Realizing the Promise of Additive Manufacturing at Boeing

I spent 6 years in the Propulsion Product Development (PD) team at Boeing. During this time, additive manufacturing (AM) has gained recognition as a technological solution that could significantly improve product development cycles, design and manufacturing at Boeing.  While Boeing has taken strides towards realizing the promise that adoption of AM can unlock, there is much more work ahead.

Additive manufacturing offers advantages that are highly synergistic with the primary goals of airplane product development. In fact, we see suppliers (such as GE [2]) and competitors (such as AirBus [3]) have already started realizing these advantages. If Boeing doesn’t realize the same advantages, it may lose market share as competitors become capable of delivering better performing airplanes at a cost advantage in shorter development cycle. Some of these synergies are:

Developing Better Performing Airplanes

Consider structural components optimally designed using Finite Element Analysis and other CAD / CAM technologies to minimize weight. These components have complex shapes that are either impossible to manufacture using traditional manufacturing methods or prohibitively expensive. As a result, designers typically add “dead weight” or use an assembly of simple parts instead of a single more complex part, thus making their manufacturing feasible. Therefore, adoption of AM can result in design of better performing airplanes since AM is not subject to the same manufacturing restrictions.

Shorter Development Cycles

Additive manufacturing allows for significant reduction in development cycles, which can lead to reduced airplane development costs and getting airplanes to market faster than competitors. For example, during my time at Boeing, I released drawings for a part more than a year prior to the first part being delivered. With additive manufacturing, the time between design completion and first part delivery can be significantly reduced.

Cost Advantages

Many parts may continue to be more cost effective to manufacture via traditional manufacturing methods (especially those produced in large batches). However, many other parts, even if simple in design, can be manufactured more affordably via Additive Manufacturing. The number of parts that are more affordably manufactured by Additive Manufacturing is increasing as the technology matures and the fixed and variable costs associated with Additive Manufacturing are reduced [4].


With the goal of realizing these synergies and other potential benefits, Boeing identified the challenges with adoption of AM and has began to address them.

Material Allowables

Reliable mechanical properties are required for designers and analysts to design parts that can be installed on airplanes. To obtain these properties for AM parts, Boeing has partnered with Oerlikon to develop standardized processes, materials, and allowables for wide and safe use of additive manufacturing on airplanes [1].

Availability of Trained Talent

The design and analysis of AM parts is substantially different from conventionally manufactured parts. Therefore, engineers must be re-trained. In addition, other professionals in the organization also need to be trained (for example, to decide which parts are advantageous to produce via AM or to qualify AM suppliers). MIT and Boeing have launched a 9-week course (Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production) to tackle this challenge [5].

However, significant additional commitment will be required to train the existing workforce and future hires within Boeing and across its supply chain. Boeing will need to drive change in the undergraduate curriculum at universities it recruits from if it wants new hires to understand how to design for AM.

Regulatory Support

The FAA has already approved select AM parts to fly. However, the approvals are limited in scope, sometimes even limiting the qualification to a specific supplier. Broader scope qualification of AM parts are required before Boeing is able to take full advantage of AM capabilities. The road map of broad scope qualification of AM parts is a multi-year effort, primarily driven by the FAA.

Similarly, Boeing will need to make significant efforts in parallel (such as the Oerlikon collaboration previously mentioned) to take advantage of the growing regulatory support for AM parts.

Technology Maturation

There are many limitations of AM technology that we have not discussed [2]. Boeing HorizonX is investing in startups tackling some of these challenges such as Morf3D and Digital Alloys [6, 7]. Additional internal investments, acquisitions and venture investments will be required to mature the technology for wide-spread use.

Other technology maturation challenges, such as those that have very high barriers to entry, may require upfront investment from Boeing or in-house pursuit of maturation.


While AM will have a significant impact on the aerospace industry, quantifying the opportunity and its cost and closing the business case is more challenging. How would you quantify it, and would you recommend Boeing move forward with full momentum? (765 words)


[1] oerlikon and boeing collaborate in additive manufacturing – oerlikon and boeing to create standard processes for 3D-printed structural titanium aerospace parts. (2018, Feb 20). Dow Jones Institutional News Retrieved from


[2] Bonnín-Roca, J., Vaishnav, P., Mendonça, J., & Morgan, G. (2017). Getting past the hype about 3-D printing. MIT Sloan Management Review, 58(3), 57-62. Retrieved from


[3] Press release: Stratasys additive manufacturing solutions selected by airbus to produce 3D printed flight parts for its A350 XWB aircraft. (2015, May 06). Dow Jones Institutional News Retrieved from


[4] Atzeni, E. & Salmi, A. Int J Adv Manuf Technol (2012) 62: 1147. Economics of additive manufacturing for end-usable metal parts.

[5] MIT-Boeing Collaboration Aims to Scale Learning in Additive Manufacturing

[6] Press release: Boeing HorizonX ventures invests in high-speed metal 3D printing company digital alloys. (2018, Aug 07). Dow Jones Institutional NewsRetrieved from

[7] Press Release: Boeing HorizonX Invests in 3D Printing Startup Morf3D 2018, , New York.


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Student comments on Realizing the Promise of Additive Manufacturing at Boeing

  1. In relation to the materials challenge, Lockheed Martin is working on utilizing AI to ensure quality of the internal structures of its additively manufactured parts: As companies in defense and aerospace move forward on parts which have an extremely rigorous quality control process, utilizing all available technology becomes even more important. By utilizing AI and requiring less operator input, you can fix some of the talent issues on the machine operations front in the short term. In the long term, I see competition for AM design talent as a major driver of company success against Boeing’s rivals in aerospace.

  2. Nikhil. Interesting read! Additive manufacturing is one of those topics that is frustrating because despite all the potential, technologically we are just not there yet to make it viable at a large scale. You pointed out a couple of these frustrations: allowable materials, talent availability, regulation (especially in air travel regulations are pretty stringent even in relation to allowable materials), and technology maturation. I would be interested to get your thoughts on another issue. Perhaps most interesting is the quality / consistency trade off with additive manufacturing vs. traditional manufacturing. While traditional manufacturing is indeed “less sexy” than AM, traditional manufacturing plants are run pretty efficiently (one might even say surgically) and we can be pretty certain about quality and consistency.

    See this article:

    Given the high costs of airplane manufacturing as we have seen in some of our cases, does going full bore on additive manufacturing now (in a world where consistency and quality are still questioned) the right move for Boeing? Or is their current strategy in backing organizations that try to address these issues the right move?

    In the long term there is little doubt that AM is the way to go. The question of timing is always an interesting one!

  3. This is a super interesting read on additive manufacturing and its potential in the aviation industry! It seems that the short-term investment for training, materials, regulatory support will be high for a company like Boeing but the long-term pay-off is high. It seems like Boeing needs to generate buy-in from its investors for this long-term payoff and act quickly before Airbus or similar companies establish a first-mover advantage that Boeing can’t overcome.

    However, I also wonder about the broader ethical implications of AM in our future. It seems that by hiring new employees trained in AM, this could also displace employees and traditional factory manufacturing workers that cannot be easily re-trained to accommodate AM or simply aren’t needed for AM. As we move towards more automation, how much responsibility do corporations have towards these displaced workers?

  4. Thank you for explaining the regulatory considerations for AM and allowable materials – I am a neophyte in this particular area and found this article extremely educational. AM certainly has what seems to be an unassailable position as the most optimal method for use in R&D due to its ability to produce multiple variations of an item relatively quickly using only one machine and requiring no expensive and time-consuming re-tooling. Do you believe that traditional manufacturing processes have “plateaued” in terms of their ability to improve and produce more complicated assemblies/parts? If this is the case, then eventually transitioning to full AM certainly seems desirable. If there is still room for improvement with traditional processes, a switch to AM for full production may be less advantageous.

  5. Great article, Nikhil!! Well analyzing what Additive Manufacturing is bringing to each aspect of airplane manufacturing. Especially interesting was the contrast between Traditional Manufacturing and Additive Manufacturing. I suppose it is as important as developing AM technology to IDENTIFY which element can be bettered by Additive Manufacturing and which element should stay with Traditional Manufacturing, in terms of the trade-off between potential benefit and potential cost. If I may try to generalize, especially for tremendously complex, “safety-first” product like airplane, it is up to humans’ wisdom how we can identify what to change/what not to change.

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