Manufacturing processes are set to become faster and more waste-efficient as new parts construction techniques hit the market. And everyone involved, from Nasa to aircraft makers, is likely to feel the benefits.
3D printing is the new dimension for aerospace industry
Most people have never heard of "direct metal deposition" technology before. But at least one company, Norsk Titanium Components, is hoping this technique will transform the way industrial parts get manufactured for aerospace companies around the world.
In the past, when manufacturers made aerospace parts, more than 80 per cent of the metal used had to be whittled away by a machine. These days, though, Norsk Titanium Components, a Norway-based parts maker, is employing direct metal deposition to speed up the process and in turn lower the cost of manufacturing.
It works by taking a digital drawing of a complex titanium component and then employing a production robot to build the part one ultra-thin layer at a time until it gets close to its final shape. The last step occurs when there is "limited machining" to trim down the object to its desired shape, says Sven Røst, a spokesman for Norsk Titanium Components.
"[Our] process provides shorter lead times, less energy consumption and material waste as well as limited machining," adds Mr Røst. "In addition, our process will provide enhanced design flexibility, as more complex shapes could eventually be produced."
So far, Norsk Titanium Components has already delivered its titanium components to companies within the oil and gas, defence and shipbuilding sectors, Mr Røst says. But it is aiming to boost business among other kinds of companies as well, including the aerospace industry.
If Norsk's story sounds familiar, it is because other companies have taken a similar approach while trying to use 3D printers to increase manufacturing and make products more cost-effectively and quickly than in the past.
Mr Røst acknowledges his company's "process is similar in many ways to 3D print".
Most 3D printers are machines that convert computer-aided designs of three-dimensional images into solid items, possibly even some that move.
Some of the industry's key players have recently been acquired, including MakerBot Industries, which its rival Stratasys agreed to purchase in June for about US$403 million. Analysts see such moves as a way for higher-end 3D printer makers to bulk up their offering of lower-end, more affordable models.
All told, the 3D printing market is projected to be worth $4 billion by 2025, according to a report by Research and Markets. And even smaller companies involved are reaping the rewards. The 3D printer maker 3D Systems reported a 12 per cent rise in quarterly profit last month as revenue from printers and printed parts more than doubled. Net income rose to $9.3m in the second quarter, from $8.3m a year earlier, while revenue jumped 45 per cent to $120.8m.
Analysts also say 3D printing technology is becoming more readily available and producing increasingly sophisticated components, including those aimed at aerospace companies.
Last month, Nasa announced it had completed testing a rocket-engine injector made through 3D printing. The US space agency further specified it had relied on a company called Aerojet Rocketdyne to fabricate the component using a method that employed high-powered laser beams to melt and fuse fine metallic powders into 3D structures.
"3D manufacturing offers opportunities to optimise the fit, form and delivery systems of materials that will enable our space missions while directly benefiting American businesses here on Earth," says Michael Gazarik, Nasa's associate administrator for space technology.
The agency also noted the process could lead to more efficient manufacturing of rocket engines, saving companies time and money.
General Electric (GE) has also said it plans to use 3D printers to manufacture aircraft components. It aims to create 100,000 such parts by 2020 and says a single aircraft engine could be reduced by 1,000 pounds, or more than 450kg, through 3D printing.
GE has also launched a contest where participants must use 3D printing processes to optimise the design of an existing aircraft engine bracket.
These brackets may only be used periodically but they remain on an engine at all times and must support its weight without breaking or warping, GE says.
The competition is open until Friday and will provide winners awards from a total prize pool worth $20,000.
But while some technology analysts predict that 3D printing will become more prevalent among aerospace manufacturers - and even mainstream across all other sectors this decade - they also warn the price of 3D printers is still prohibitive for some businesses. "Printing custom 3D objects has tremendous potential in the prototyping, modelling and consumer markets, but it needs to find a cost-effective approach to gain critical mass," according to an analysis on the 3D printing market by Gartner, a market research firm.
At Emco Education, which has distributed 3D printers for 11 years and is based in the United Kingdom, machines start at £1,649 (Dh9,275) with material cartridges costing £65.
Yet some other models that produce high-definition plastic parts can cost from £15,000 to about £200,000.
Even the sector's strongest proponents acknowledge the industry is nascent. "3D printing is still in its early days," says Jim Wilson, the owner and managing director of Emco Education.
Mr Wilson says some companies use 3D printers for rapid prototyping of parts and he expects more will eventually start harnessing the technology for fast manufacturing. "But that is a long way off in most sectors," he adds.
Increased competition may help bring prices down and boost the availability of 3D printers. Emco, for one, is certainly feeling the pressure from the rise in the number of companies that distribute machines in this space.
"There are a lot more manufacturers and technologies available for customers to choose from," says Mr Wilson.
"Most machines are produced in Europe and the USA, but there are some other major manufacturers based elsewhere in the world," he adds.
"So far there is very little coming in from the far East, but I guess it is only a matter of time."