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OM in the News: 3-D Printers and Jet Parts

June 22, 2017

A worker operates one of the large-scale 3-D printers developed by Norsk

Aerospace suppliers are eager to start using 3-D printing technology to turn out large, high-volume structural parts for jetliners, but U.S. FAA safety regulators are taking a go-slow approach toward approving such production. “Three-dimensional printing is a darling of the aerospace industry because it is relatively inexpensive compared with more-prevalent ways of making components,” writes The Wall Street Journal (June 21, 2017). Experts see the potential of eventually using 3-D technology to produce thousands of different parts at 30% lower cost than traditional milling methods.

But the FAA has to approve the overall process and certify that the cutting-edge, plasma-deposition technology is reliable enough to ensure identical strength and other properties from batch to batch. The Norwegian firm, Norsk Titanium, which has been laying the groundwork for the initiative for several years, already has FAA approval to produce a limited category of structural titanium parts for Boeing’s 787. By using titanium wire, rather than powder, as the raw material, the company is able to tackle larger parts and churn them out much faster than would be possible otherwise. Norsk’s 3-D printed production runs can be 100 times faster than those using powder, meaning some parts could be ready in a matter of hours, instead of days or weeks.

There are scores of companies itching to join the 3-D printing trend for aerospace alone. A large jetliner has between 300 and 1,000 structural titanium parts. GE is using a different, more time-consuming process for more intricate parts. It has approval to print thousands of fuel nozzles, for jet engines powering new planes from Boeing and Airbus , featuring complex internal structures that would be impossible to produce by traditional methods.

Classroom discussion questions:

  1. Why is 3-D printing a major issue for operations managers in aerospace?
  2. What is the FAA issue here?
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