Have you ever had to deplane because of mechanical problems, waiting hours on end before you could catch another flight? Chances are, as you waited, you did wonder wonder if 3D printing could help get you back on schedule. But with 3D printing, or additive manufacturing, these delays might become significantly shorter.
Boeing uses fuel nozzles created through additive manufacturing. In May 2017, Malindo Air received one of Boeing's first 737 MAX 8 plans built with this new nozzle. Not only does using this lightweight, AM created nozzle simplify the assembly process for Boeing, it reduces the amount of in-flight fuel required by 15%. A boost for the airline that translates into significant environmental benefits.
Airbus is – and has been – using this technology as well. In April 2016, they announced “… some 2,700 plastic parts have been produced by additive manufacturing for the A350 XWB program …”. Their team of experts working together to improve their planes and ensure everything is approved by the authorities.
The work these two aircraft giants are doing will benefit the rest of the industry. But the improvements in aircraft manufactures won't be limited to the skies. For example, Daimler announced they'll be using additive manufacturing for replacement parts for their buses. They've already been using parts for trucks and prototypes for over two decades, so this isn't new to their manufacturing teams. They'll be able to ensure “… a swift supply of replacement parts even after several decades – and worldwide.” Rather than having a stockpile, they'll be utilizing production plants around the world to print the required parts. No longer will the exorbitant costs previously associated with special manufacturing runs be the norm. Specialized parts or older parts will be printed on demand. Old bus need a part? No problem. And no shipping.
Had this process been in place in 2016, Air Zimbabwe might not have been barred from flying in Europe. The US opposed their personnel and citizens from flying with them. In April 2017, the last five planes with Airzim were deemed unfit to fly.
The economic challenges in Zimbabwe haven't helped the national airline. And the debt Airzim owed was crippling. But the matter went from remarkably-bad to couldn't-get-worse as they were waiting for parts to be shipped from China. However, if parts were created on the ground, in country – by an authorized and certified partner – those parts could have been installed in days. Safety wouldn't have been been compromised, and perhaps the airline could have continued to fly.
Protections are being developed now to ensure the parts made through additive manufacturing maintain high production standards. Each individual airline has to do their part as well. No amount of proper testing, planning, certification, and protection of designs matters if the airline drops the ball. But, if the airline wants to safely stay in the air, this advancement enables them to do so, even if the country is in crisis – economic or otherwise.
Changing the supply line has the potential to be a game changer for these smaller carriers. No longer will they be at the mercy of the shipping process (and the possible bribery or theft that might happen along the way). They'll have more power internally.
What will happen in this changing landscape? Will the companies and citizens in the developing nations be able to embrace their own power? Boeing, Airbus, and other aircraft manufacturers improving their systems creates opportunities for carriers to be more responsive and responsible.
And that will, hopefully, mean a smoother and less eventful flight experience for everyone.