Within the aftermarket, additive manufacturing is often examined within the context of producing spare parts.
And while there is excitement about 3D printing allowing MRO providers to manufacture replacement parts rather than rely on the OEM and second-hand markets, their present capabilities are largely restricted to small, plastic cabin items.
This is because printing complex or structural carbon fiber and metal parts is a difficult and expensive art to master--and therefore one that is likely to remain the preserve of OEMs for several years.
Yet MRO providers have the chance to take the lead in another application of AM: repairs.
Indeed, to some extent they have already through laser cladding. A form of additive manufacturing known as laser metal deposition, it uses a laser to generate a weld pool on the component surface. Material is then added to the melt pool as a powder or wire and the melted particles fuse and solidify while the nozzle is manipulated to add the desired structure to the component.
Companies such as AFI KLM E&M and Lufthansa Technik have offered laser cladding for some time, but the next technological step will be to certify AM techniques such as selective laser sintering.
The amount of post-processing in power-bed-based repairs is reduced when compared with many welding techniques, which require excess material to be machined off afterwards. Repair of complex geometries is also served by the lower heat input of printed repairs, which avoids the thermal distortion that can occur with welding.
However, there are significant challenges, notably the fact that powder must be applied to an existing component, rather than being fused or melted inside a standard AM manufacturing platform. As a result, specific fixtures must be developed for each component to be repaired.
Despite such difficulties, the first powder-bed repair should be certified within the next 18 months. To find out more about additive repairs, see the next issue of Inside MRO.