Innovative applications on airplanes
The first passenger to see 3D-printed airplane parts appeared in 2018, with an A320 bulkhead mounted along the overhead compartment.
Again, a direct benefit is increased fuel efficiency, as the panels weigh 15% less than their conventionally-made counterparts.
More interesting, however, is the impact of this case on aircraft customization.
Making new plastic airplane parts often requires custom injection molding (die opening), which is a complex, expensive, and lengthy process.
Although injection molding is cost-effective in mass production, it is a waste of money in small quantities.
This is because most of the production costs come from the production of the original mold, there is no scale effect in the case of small production.
In this case, it is virtually impossible for an aircraft manufacturer to offer a high level of customization to a buyer unless many or all buyers want the feature.
However, the bulkhead mentioned above was added as a special custom component from Finnair, with little additional cost.
Additive manufacturing bypasses the stages of mold design, fabrication, and testing necessary for injection molding.
This greatly reduces the time and cost required to produce custom parts in small batches.
However, it should be understood that in the case of mass production, the cost and time cost of additive manufacturing can also exceed that of traditional molding methods.
This is due to the high unit variable cost, which is currently the norm for 3D printing solutions.
For manufacturers and airlines, this production dynamic will make greater customization economically feasible.
Boeing says it believes additive manufacturing will be able to offer more customisation services, especially in areas such as cabin furniture, textures and signage.
Over time, intensive forms of customization are also possible.
Airlines may require modular seat components and unique overhead compartment design.
The biggest beneficiaries of this development will be airline passengers, who will enjoy a richer experience and a higher level of comfort, as airlines try to brand themselves distinctly.
So what happens in the end?
Eventually, many of the benefits of additive manufacturing will flow down the supply chain.
The ease with which additive manufacturing can be used to experiment with components will promote innovation in products and services, but the specific benefits are currently more difficult to predict and should benefit passengers and airlines in general.
More specifically, weight loss and direct improvements in fuel efficiency would undoubtedly reduce the overall cost of transportation — all other things being equal, of course.
In a highly competitive air transport environment, airlines’ operating costs will be reduced, and these savings will benefit passengers through fares.
While additive manufacturing is unlikely to turn our planes into gravity-defying Ufos, we can certainly expect greater comfort, more innovative designs and lower prices for air travel in the near future.
These changes will happen gradually and steadily, and before you know it, the air transport industry will certainly be very different.
Translator: Zhang Mou