If you're following the 3-D printing space, you might know that aerospace companies are quickly embracing this disruptive technology. While General Electric, which has plans to use the technology to produce fuel nozzles for its new Leap jet engine, gets the lion's share of the press, Boeing (NYSE:BA), Airbus (OTC:EADSY), Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), and other aerospace companies are also involved, to varying degrees, with 3-D printing technology.
We're going to explore a sampling of how aircraft manufacturers Boeing, Airbus, and Lockheed Martin are using or planning to use 3-D printing in their production processes. Like many large manufacturers, these companies have been using 3-D printing for prototyping for many years. A previous article discussed why the aerospace industry is all-aboard the 3-D printing train (or plane), and highlighted the 3-D printing efforts of GE and United Technologies' Pratt & Whitney division.
Why should aerospace investors care how Boeing, Airbus, and Lockheed Martin are using 3-D printing? Aerospace companies that more quickly and successfully put to use 3-D printing throughout their operations will likely sport a competitive advantage over their slower-moving and less-effective peers due to the considerable cost savings and innovative possibilities that this technology can unleash.
Boeing: $94.1 billion market cap
Notably, Boeing was, reportedly, one of the earlier adopters of 3-D printing. This certainly speaks to the company's innovative chops.
That said, Boeing's received a lot more coverage than the other aerospace companies – except for GE – and there's way too much to cover in a short space. So, I'll just include one interesting tidbit here: Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner includes about 30 3-D printed parts, which is a record in the industry. The parts aren't critical aerospace components, but such things as hinges and air ducts. Boeing is, however, ramping up its 3-D printing efforts.
Airbus: $57.4 billion market cap
Airbus just announced last week that it was expanding its use of 3-D printing. The European aircraft manufacturer has started to use 3-D printed parts in its A300/A310 models, and its newly released A350 XWB. Peter Sander of Airbus was quoted by engineering.com as saying: "We are on the cusp of a step-change in weight reduction and efficiency – producing aircraft parts which weight 30 to 55 percent less, while reducing raw material used by 90 percent. This game-changing technology also decreases total energy used in production by up to 90 percent compared to traditional methods."
Airbus already has produced many plastic and metal brackets for the A350 XWB aircraft. The company has worked with privately held German 3-D printer manufacturer EOS to test and validate material and structural properties of the parts produced using EOS's direct metal laser sintering technology, according to an article in 3ders.org.
Airbus is also exploring the use of 3-D printing to make out-of-production spare parts on demand. "This month, the first "printed" component – a small plastic crew seat panel – flew on an Airbus customer jetliner, an A310 operated by Canada's Air Transat," noted 3ders.org.
Lockheed Martin: $51.3 billion market cap
Lockheed Martin is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the largest lab in the U.S. Department of Energy's system, to scale up 3-D printing to produce parts up to 60-100 feet in size for the aerospace and other industries, according to Aviation Week. The ultimate goal is to be able to print structures such as the wings of a large unmanned aircraft.
ORNL has a premier materials science program, and it's the material that is the key to scaling up 3-D printing for industrial uses. This is because 3-D involves heating the material being printed, which often results in large printed parts warping because areas with varying thicknesses cool at different rates. The ORNL-Lockheed Martin project involves developing a "broad area" 3-D printer for printing the carbon-fiber-reinforced plastics, which ORNL has specially developed for 3-D printing applications.
You can read more about this project in my recent article.
Foolish final thoughts
The aerospace industry players are in the very early stages of using 3-D printing in their production processes. Given the considerable costs savings and innovative possibilities this technology affords, the companies that more quickly and successfully put 3-D printing to use will likely enjoy a competitive advantage over their peers.