The 3D printing paradox

The 3D Printing Paradox

3D printing or ‘additive manufacturing’ is increasingly stepping forward to meet the demand for efficient MRO in civil aviation. Brendan Viggers, product and sales - aerospace & defence at IFS, looks at the implications production, supply chains and ERP systems.

3D printing is becoming a 'must have' for manufacturers rather than a luxury R&D project. In the aerospace and defence industry (A&D) the uptake of 3D printing for the manufacturing process is taking off. In civil aviation, companies like Boeing and Airbus have been using the process to manufacture components for more than two years, with Airbus recently printing 1,000 parts to meet delivery deadlines for the A350.

With demand for air travel showing no signs of slowing down, civil aviation organisations must ensure aircraft remain airworthy and in the air for the maximum possible amount of time. Despite positive uptake of additive manufacturing, in A&D we have only glimpsed the top of a large and growing iceberg.

Why 3D has a special place for aircraft manufacturers

The complex and specialist nature of aviation equipment makes for a vast supply chain. The thousands of constituent parts required to assemble an aircraft engine are typically sourced from companies scattered across the globe. Coupled with strict industry safety regulations, this poses a supply chain problem for civil aviation firms, particularly when it comes to MRO. With ‘spares utilisation’ a key to keeping assets operational for the maximum amount of time, 3D printing offers a solution.

When MRO software indicates a component is faulty or at the end of life span, the availability of a replacement can effect operations. Instead of flying in specialist parts from any given corner of the globe, 3D manufacturing allows civil aviation enterprises to manufacture the required part quickly, cost-efficiently and crucially, on-site. With the threat of operational downtime negatively influencing revenue, 3D printing offers savings on both fronts.

ROI to drive uptake

One of the key inhibitors to large scale adoption of any new technology such as 3D printing, particularly in the civil Brendanaviation sector, is perceived return on investment (ROI). But with Rolls-Royce and GE both stating on the record that they can produce lighter engines more quickly by incorporating 3D printing into their manufacturing process, and both now with plans announced to produce engine parts through additive manufacturing over the coming years,  the ROI is clear.  

Boeing and Airbus have even been using the process for small components, like hinges, since 2013. In fact, Airbus recently printed 1,000 parts to ensure they met a delivery deadline. As the technology becomes more advanced and affordable, more enterprises in the aviation sector will see the business benefits. A recent study of 3D printing adoption by Price Waterhouse Cooper estimates the MRO market stands to save $3.4bn annually in material and logistical costs alone.

It's not what you do, it's controlling changes in the way that you do it

While 3D printing is rightly being welcomed in the aviation sector, it is crucial that business processes mirror the technology change. In an industry as heavily regulated as aerospace and defence, safety is paramount. Comprehensive training around use of 3D printing machines will become a necessity, alongside quality control methods when assessing components manufactured by the process. It will also require key changes in the ERP systems which control every element of the manufacturing and supply chain process.

Organisations such as IFS are developing a new generation of more modular applications-based ERP software, to remove the time and pain required to modify processes in traditional, more monolithic, ERP systems.

Undoubtedly, additive manufacturing has provided the A&D industry with an enormous opportunity to make parts much more efficiently. The accuracy of manufacturing with 3D printing, the time saved when out in the field, as well as the potential cost savings, cannot be ignored. But 3D printing is just one part of the whole manufacturing process and will bring about substantial change in whole ERP infrastructure. ERP software becomes even more vital to manage MRO.

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