Jun 20, 2017 | By Benedict

3D printed aircraft components are regularly in the news, but a recent article in the Wall Street Journal suggests that additive manufacturing is being involuntarily grounded by a cautious Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). So is 3D printing in the aerospace industry ready for takeoff or not?

Even if you only spend a few minutes of the week browsing our website, you’re likely to have come across several articles concerning aerospace companies and their work with 3D printing. Large aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus are frequently seen working with additive manufacturing companies, while American multinational conglomerate General Electric is responsible for perhaps the most notable example of 3D printing in aerospace: a 3D printed fuel nozzle that helps power the GE9X jet engine.

But according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, additive manufacturing is being throttled by the FAA, America’s national regulator for civil aviation. The article, written by journalist Andy Pasztor, suggests that the regulator is being “slow” to approve the production of 3D printed aircraft components, as it seeks to ensure that parts made via additive manufacturing are as strong and reliable as their traditionally made counterparts.

Pasztor seems to have a point. After all, despite the abundance of AM activity in the aerospace industry, only a couple of companies have had their 3D printed parts approved for use by the FAA.

These companies—the ones we know of, at least—include the aforementioned GE, as well as Norsk Titanium, whose Rapid Plasma Deposition 3D printing process resulted in the company’s first FAA-approved structural titanium aircraft components earlier this year. Norsk Titanium’s 3D printed components will be used in Boeing Dreamliner aircraft, and the company recently partnered with Kansas-based Spirit AeroSystems, which could eventually 3D print 30 percent of its titanium parts.

The Wall Street Journal today discusses the speed of the FAA in approving 3D printed aircraft parts

Clearly then, the FAA hasn’t been freely handing out certifications like in-flight bags of pretzels. But it is still up for debate as to whether the regulator, which is ultimately responsible for the lives of aircraft crew and passengers, could (or should) be working faster to approve 3D printed parts. While the regulator’s certification processes are not entirely transparent, the FAA has intermittently attempted to explain its school of thought on additive manufacturing—as well as its own role in the future of aerospace 3D printing.

In March of this year, less than a month before Norsk Titanium was granted FAA approval for its titanium parts, the FAA’s Aircraft Maintenance Division (AFS-300) gave a presentation about additive manufacturing at the 2017 Gorham Conference, an annual aviation conference featuring a number of speakers.

At the event, the FAA division explained that additive manufacturing is “rapidly evolving” and being “introduced into new aircraft deigns, repairs, and alterations.” (The regulator even cited a 2015 3Ders article as evidence for the growth of additive manufacturing in aerospace.) Examples of 3D printing in aerospace, including small and complex engine parts and spares/repairs, were discussed with those in attendance.

Interestingly, the FAA also addressed what it termed the “challenges and concerns” about additive manufacturing—the very reasons why FAA approval for 3D printed parts might appear to be coming along slowly.

Those concerns about AM included, amongst other things, the possibility of material defects in 3D printed parts (and the resulting impact on the part’s airworthiness); a lack understanding about “failure modes” and their connection to key production parameters for AM produced parts; the unknown mechanical properties of metal 3D printed parts; and the susceptibility of 3D printed parts to environmental conditions.

Norsk Titanium (above) and GE (below) have had 3D printed aircraft components approved by the FAA

The regulator has also discussed additive manufacturing on other occasions. In June 2016, at a joint FAA-Air Force workshop on 3D printing, a roundtable of experts concluded that aerospace additive manufacturing would generally require “better input powder material,” while also noting that the potential for unwanted manufacturing variation in AM was high.

Perhaps tellingly, the experts on the roundtable also concluded that “near-net or finished shapes, complex geometries, and as-built, or even post-processed, surface finishes” all represented “challenges for inspection,” with many parts requiring “sophisticated volume inspections, such as computed tomography, augmented by actual cutups.”

These cautious observations by the FAA obviously still hold true today, but the outlook for 3D printing in aerospace is far from grim. This Friday signals the start of the 2017 Paris Air Show, a renowned aviation event where several additive manufacturing developments (FAA-approved or otherwise) will be showcased. 3D printing giants like Stratasys and Renishaw will be demonstrating their aerospace capabilities, while heavyweights like Boeing and Airbus will also showcase how they are using 3D printing technology for future aircraft.

At the end of the day, it is hard to believe that more than a handful of people expected 3D printed aerospace components to become airborne overnight. And while the FAA might at first glance appear to be resisting progress, can we really blame a national regulator for wanting to establish a sustainable framework for this new manufacturing technology before giving it the green light?

Aerospace additive manufacturing clearly has a bright future ahead, and whether it becomes mainstream in one year or 10, the FAA must focus on validating 3D printed thoroughly, not quickly.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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Butch wrote at 6/21/2017 9:06:10 PM:

I heard that Norsk Titanium's claim of having FAA-approved structural titanium aircraft components is an outright lie. If the part was really FAA-approved, Boeing, the OEM, would be sharing this news with the world, but they refuse to confirm this claim. And the FAA certainly won't confirm the Norsk Titanium claim. It seems that Norsk Titanium is not being honest with the media and marketplace. Let's see the proof!

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