Finding a Home for 3D Printing in Manufacturing
Ian Wright posted on July 05, 2016 |
A 3D-printed wrench made from flexible TPU filament. (Image courtesy of Creative Tools.)
A 3D-printed wrench made from flexible TPU filament. (Image courtesy of Creative Tools.)
Despite its success in prototyping, 3D printing is still very much the new kid on the block in manufacturing. This adolescent technology is still trying to find a niche amongst its older, faster siblings, like CNC machining and injection molding.

This state of affairs has raised many important but as-yet-unanswered questions:

Will 3D printing unlock true on-demand manufacturing?

Can additive manufacturing alone deliver finished parts?

How do we move from metal rapid prototyping to metal additive manufacturing?

All of these questions share a common presumption: the future of 3D printing lies in production, whether that means creating finished parts or near net shapes.

But what if 3D printers have a different role to play on the shop floor?


3D Printing in Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul

The CFM LEAP engine has become the posterchild for additive manufacturing, and its 3D-printed fuel nozzle is probably one of the most photographed parts ever made. The first engines were delivered to Airbus just a few months ago, which means that companies planning to provide maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services for these engines are already tooling up.

In a recent interview with Aviation Week, representatives of one such company, Rhinestahl, hinted at the possibility of using 3D-printed tools to maintain the LEAP engines.

A technician works on a GE90 engine. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
A technician works on a GE90 engine. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
“There are some tools where 3D printing is an optional method for manufacturing; I don’t think there are many,” said Dan Hudepohl, CFM56 and CFM LEAP technical program manager. “I’ve seen it on a few drawings where, if you have the capability, you can 3D print them, but you can also manufacture them with molds or however it calls out. They’re starting to incorporate different manufacturing capabilities as things evolve.”

“I’m not sure about the line-maintenance fold, but there have been a handful of tools that have components that have a 3D printing option for the manufacturer,” added engineering support leader Bob Dehner. “The one thing I’ve seen would be more use of aluminum and some plastics. Basically, both GE and [Safran Engine] are trying to make tools as light as possible to reduce the weight for ergonomic considerations.”

Of course, the advantages of 3D printing go beyond making more ergonomic tools. MRO companies can also use the technology to create spare parts on demand, enabling them to respond to emergency situations quickly without having to maintain large inventories of spare parts.

That’s one reason for the interest in using additive manufacturing on the ISS, which could soon see an influx of 3D printers specifically designed for off-world use.

This strategy isn’t just for aerospace applications, either. Audi has been using 3D printing in its tool design for some time now:


“[3D printing] enables us to produce parts faster and more cost-effectively,” said Michael Breme, head of Audi tool design. “For example, with a 3D printer we don’t have any waste, like we would with metal cutting.”

The cost of 3D printers remains one of the leading barriers to the widespread adoption of 3D printing in manufacturing, which explains why you’re much more likely to find 3D printers in the aerospace sector than the automotive. However, the cost of the machines is less of an issue in MRO than it is for high volume production, since the former typically needs fewer machines than the latter. 

What do you think? Is MRO the best place for 3D printing in manufacturing? Comment below.

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