A new case study from the Northwestern University, led by Professor Eric Masanet, has found a way to help the airline industry save money by saving the environment all at the same time. The solution – 3D printing.
By manufacturing aircrafts’ metal parts with 3-D printing, airlines could save a significant amount of fuel, materials, and other resources.
Funded by the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Manufacturing Office and published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, the study used aircraft industry data to examine the life-cycle environmental effects of using 3D printing for select metal aircraft parts, a technique that is already being adopted by the industry.
Masaneti’s team concluded that 3D-printing the lighter and higher performance parts could decrease the cost of production while also decreasing the weight of the finished airplane.
“The airline industry is an early adopter of 3-D printing,” said Masanet, the Morris E. Fine Junior Professor in Materials and Manufacturing at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “The main driver is that aircrafts require specialized lightweight metal alloys that can be very costly to process.”
Compared to conventional methods of manufacturing, 3D printing requires much less raw material inputs and has the capacity to produce parts that minimise weight through better design.
“We have suboptimal designs because we’re limited by conventional manufacturing,” Masanet said. “When you can make something in layer-by-layer fashion, those constraints diminish.”
While “printing” such massive components as wings and engines might still be a long way ahead, using 3D printers to manufacture less flight-critical parts like brackets, hinges, seat buckles and furnishings could become a reality in the mid-term.
For instance, the study details how 3D-printing a bracket reduces its weight from 1.09 kilograms to 0.38 kilograms – not a massive change in itself, but such small, incremental reductions could add up to significantly lower aircraft weights.
“There are enough parts that, when replaced, could reduce the weight of the aircraft by 4 to 7 percent,” said Masanet. “And it could be even more as we move forward. This will save a lot of resources and a lot of fuel.”
Using 3D-printed aircraft components to their full potential could bring a two-fold advantage in terms of the environment. First, thanks to their lower weight, airplanes would require 6.4 percent less fuel, thereby decreasing dependence on “dead dinosaurs”; and secondly, 3D printing requires only half or even just a third of the energy compared to current methods.
The only caveat to all of this is that realising the full extent of the savings could only be achieved with slightly more advanced technology. Limitations in the process, such as issues with surface quality, residual stresses, repeatability, and throughput, are current barriers to full-scale adoption.
Masanet hopes the study will prove enticing enough to direct more research and funding towards improving this important technology.
“If we can accelerate the necessary process improvements, then we can start reaping these savings sooner,” he said. “Maybe then we can start seeing savings 10 years earlier than if we just let the technology progress at its regular rate.”