Feature
3D Printing

How 3D printing is transforming manufacturing

Mike Murray, Project Manager at BAE Systems, explains why 3D printing has huge implications across manufacturing

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Mike Murray
Head of Airframe Integration at BAE Systems
It is early days, but the most important thing is that the possibilities are endless, 3D printing has the potential to significantly change mainstream manufacturing for any business, large or small.

Three-dimensional printing – creating a solid object from a 3D model – could revolutionise how jet parts, if not whole aircraft, are made. It is a breakthrough that has huge implications for other industries going forward, not least SMEs, who will soon be able to explore and access new markets with minimal financial risk. Late in 2013, BAE created and flew a 3D-printed metal part on board a Tornado fighter jet for the first time.

The cost factor
 
Cost is a key factor and this is where SMEs, in particular, will benefit. 3D printing is an ‘additive’ process, which means parts are built by adding material, layer by layer. “You start with wire material for larger objects, or powder for smaller parts, and manufacture what you need. The lighter you make it, the cheaper it becomes, which is very different to traditional techniques,” says Mike.
 
This manufacturing process means that parts can be customised without the need for large-scale production. Businesses will be able to produce one-off prototypes quickly and cheaply, allowing them to try out new concepts or ideas without a major initial financial outlay. And with the cost of 3D printers falling, it will soon be financially viable for even the smallest companies to make a variety of products, thus opening up new markets.
 
Saving time
 
The technology means that parts can be produced in the location and precise quantity they are needed, which saves a great deal of time – as well as transport and storage costs. 
 
With some parts costing less than £100 per piece to manufacture, it is estimated that 3D printing will cut the cost of repairs, maintenance and service to the Royal Air Force significantly. Just one part alone used to support aircraft on the ground at RAF Marham is projected to save more than £1.2 million over the next four years. 
 
3D printing also overcomes many of the design constraints of traditional manufacturing, allowing for far greater flexibility. “Currently, components are constructed in very geometric shapes, but with this process products can be made that are more aerodynamic and streamlined,” says Mike. This also means the products can be made lighter, making the process even more cost-effective.
 
Government sponsorship
 

BAE Systems is encouraged through government sponsorship such as the Technology Strategy Board, which supports the development of 3D printing. The Board is investing £15 million in the set-up of a national centre for 3D printing at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry. This investment offers particular benefits for SMEs, who will be able to test ideas at the centre without upfront capital investment.
 
“At the moment, there are only a small number of SMEs worldwide that have a capability to support aerospace applications at production rates,” says Mike. “But if you look at other market areas, such as the consumer market, the technology is very apparent and widely publicised.”   
 
3D printing – a summary

  • 3D printing saves money.
  • A product is built by adding material, layer by layer: the lighter you make it, the cheaper it becomes.
  • Production no longer needs to be large scale to be cost-effective.
  • Parts can be produced in the exact location and quantity required, reducing transport and storage costs.
  • As the cost of 3D printers falls, SMEs can make prototypes and one-off products cheaply and quickly, opening up new markets.
  • SMEs can test and develop their ideas at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry without initial financial outlay.

 

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