The Aviation Edge
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|Rich Pell||June 5th 2015|
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,â€ Masanet says. â€œWhen 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:
- airplane fuel consumption could be reduced by as much as 6.4%, reducing fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions;
- manufacturing 3-D printed components uses as little as one-third to one-half of the energy currently used in conventional methods;
- 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.