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3-D Printed Aircraft Parts Will Save Weight, Fuel Says Study

June 5th 2015

United Airlines jet liner

The team, led by Eric Masanet who heads the Energy and Resource Systems Analysis Laboratory at Northwestern, used aircraft industry data to study the life-cycle environmental effects of using 3-D printing - or 'additive manufacturing' - for building select metal aircraft parts. While 3-D printing has begun to be adopted by the airline industry, the study concluded that widespread adoption of the technique to print lighter and higher-performance aircraft parts could significantly reduce manufacturing waste and the weight of the airplane, resulting in fuel and cost saving as well as a reduction in carbon emissions.

"We have suboptimal designs because we're limited by conventional manufacturing,” Masanet says. “When you can make something in layer-by-layer fashion, those constraints diminish."

According to Masanet, some of the aircraft parts that offer the most potential for 3-D printing include less critical items like brackets, hinges, seat buckles, and furnishings. "There are enough parts that, when replaced, could reduce the weight of the aircraft by 4 to 7 percent," he says.

If used to the full potential, Masanet sees 3-D printed components greatly benefiting the environment in several ways:

  1. airplane fuel consumption could be reduced by as much as 6.4%, reducing fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions;
  2. manufacturing 3-D printed components uses as little as one-third to one-half of the energy currently used in conventional methods;
  3. manufacturers would potentially save thousands of tons of aluminum, titanium, and nickel that are otherwise scrapped every year.

However, says Masanet, for 3-D printing to realize its full potential for estimated aircraft weight savings based on full-scale adoption, current limitations - such as issues with surface quality, residual stresses, repeatability, and throughput - need to be addressed. He hopes such studies as his help provide encouragement for further efforts on improving the 3-D printing process.

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