The outlook for 3D printing in aerospace and defence

Andrew Elwell

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing as it is more commonly known, will transform military supply chains and profoundly change the dynamics of the aerospace and defence (A&D) industry.

The technology is not new – the process of creating a 3D object by adding layers of material has been around since the 1980s – but it’s only recently been identified as a viable option for large scale manufacturing rather than for low volume rapid prototyping. Additive manufacturing (AM) is pushing engineering boundaries, allowing companies to make complex objects and products never before possible. The sector is a natural fit for 3D printing then – the A&D industry prides itself on ‘the art of the possible.’

In June Deloitte University Press published a report, ‘3D opportunity in aerospace and defence: Additive manufacturing takes flight’, which concluded that "there is little doubt that AM’s penetration into the aerospace and defence value chain will grow."

In 2012, the defence industry contributed 10.2% of additive manufacturing’s $2.2 billion global revenue and Deloitte expects "increased momentum in the medium term for A&D companies."

Additive manufacturing allows engineers to create complex geometries out of polymers, metals, and composites that are not possible through traditional manufacturing techniques. 3D printing is also more cost effective in theory since there is no waste - you are adding material rather than chipping it away. As the technology matures, lead-times and costs will fall.

In an interview with Army Technology, Dr Thomas Russell, director of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, explained the "huge potential" of 3D printing not only for industry, but the military too.

"One of our biggest challenges in the Army is that there is a huge logistics burden. If we could forward-deploy manufacturing capabilities, we would have the opportunity to manufacture parts in-theatre, or repair parts," said Dr Russell.

BAE Systems is one of the companies in this sector that’s heavily investing in 3D capabilities and recently unveiled a ‘future concepts’ campaign. What if the military could print an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) on-board an aircraft, in-theatre? It’s a possibility; BAE’s vision is to develop the ultimate evolution of 'on demand/just in time' spare parts for the military.

Moreover, BAE announced earlier this year that its engineers had manufactured and flown a 3D printed metal part for the first time on-board a Tornado fighter jet. 3D printing technology is not just for prototypes anymore; it’s now used on-board some of the most sophisticated military equipment in the world.

GE Aviation is also a pioneering force for A&D additive manufacturing. The company is currently producing 3D printed fan blade edges and expects to manufacture these in large scale production by 2016. According to Deloitte, GE plans to triple its AM headcount by 2017 through organic growth and acquisitions.

Boeing has been doing research in this area since 1997, according to a company spokesman. It’s not currently using metallic 3D parts in production but plastic is widely used for prototypes. "In the future, we expect to be using additive manufacturing for components on both military aircraft and commercial planes," Boeing said in a statement.

Potentially, additive manufacturing has huge upside for the aerospace and defence industry. There is hardly a company in the sector that is not looking to diversify its products and services into other adjacent verticals. The impact of the economic collapse in 2008 has weighed heavy on defence – companies need to de-risk their product lines and look to other markets for growth. 3D printing can be a route into new markets as it helps firms diversify what they can manufacture. GE Aviation uses AM for everything from defence to healthcare for example.

It’s true there is progress being made, but how real is it? Does additive manufacturing offer real-world benefits that can and will be utilised in large scale manufacturing? Or is it just another concept that encourages writers to overuse the word "innovative"?

There’s been a great deal of conjecture and debate about additive manufacturing for the aerospace and defence industry – much of which is blind enthusiasm or made up of robust declarations of a manufacturing revolution along the lines of the opening paragraph of this article – but there’s an elephant in the room: If AM is so ground-breaking, why aren’t more companies in the sector ramping up investment in the technology? Some are, but there’s not been widespread uptake yet.

According to Deloitte, one of the key factors holding the industry back is the knowledge gap. For its AM study, Deloitte interviewed a number of A&D practitioners to understand more.

"They [A&D industry representatives] are apprehensive about additive manufacturing … they are looking for successful case studies before committing capital to AM."

Brendan Viggers, Head of Product Management at IFS, said 3D printing would be widely accepted by the A&D industry by going "mainstream" in 2014. However, he indicated the associated training and knowledge is one of the major concerns for A&D companies – how do they operate the machines? Who does the quality assurance?

Since the benefits of AM seem so obvious – and exciting, trailblazing – should we assume it will be embraced by the industry? Maybe not. Peter W. Singer, author, analyst, and one of the world’s top 100 most influential people in defence, told me on Twitter that 3D printing will be adopted by the A&D industry in a similar way to how music firms reacted to the iPod. He said they were "kicking and screaming [because] it changed the profit/market structure … [it’s the] same for the defence industry."

Professor Stewart Williams of Cranfield University is researching additive manufacturing for applications in the A&D industry. His research focuses on large scale engineering structures using the wire plus arc additive manufacture (WAAM) process, which he says has cost and lead-time savings over current techniques. Williams has established a multi project multi-client programme, WAAMMat, to develop the process and make it viable for commercial use.

BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Airbus Group are all backing the project to build a machine that will allow them to exploit the WAAM process. Airbus wants to have the process qualified as soon as possible while Lockheed Martin (UK) is aiming to have units qualified for flight within the next two years using their own bespoke WAAM facility that was developed and commissioned in conjunction with Cranfield.

Professor Steve Burnage of Lockheed Martin (UK) is investigating the potential to manufacture a range of components in steel and aluminium, covering lightweight space components, through to high performance and configurable armours. In all instances, the focus of Professor Burnage’s work will be to investigate the possibility of manufacturing shapes and forms that cannot be made in any way other than by 3D additive layering.

Lockheed Martin’s Space Systems business is also exploiting 3D printing technology, which is no surprise given the high-tech specifications of component parts. At Farnborough Airshow earlier this month executive vice president Richard Ambrose told Aviation Week that it expects to build more than half of its A2100 satellite bus by additive manufacturing within the next two or three years.

Professor Williams said the WAAMMat project is currently at TRL3 and he hopes to have it up to TRL4 in the next 12 months. I asked how interested the primes are in the technology – is it in high demand or a side project?

"If there was a machine commercially available, all of them would buy one right now," Professor Williams told Defence IQ.

Other research outfits are looking at 3D printing too, often through industry partnerships. The Army Research Laboratory in the US is looking at 3D printing hybrid materials and exploring how to improve their strength and durability, particularly in extreme environments where the Army typically operates.

It’s these partnerships that are key at this stage in the R&D process. A better understanding of additive manufacturing is required to continue driving the technology forward, moving it in the right direction so it can be exploited by the A&D industry.

3D printing will have a major impact on the design of complex, bespoke products that break existing material and engineering limitations in the future. It’s unclear when the breakthrough into commercial, large scale manufacturing will happen but greater investment in projects like WAAMMat will surely be fundamental in hastening the revolution.

Do you work in the additive manufacturing industry? Get in touch with the author to share your insight and opinion on the use of 3D printing in the defence and aerospace sector. He can be reached at