3D printing has been one of the stand-out innovations to come out of the last few years and had been used to manufacture all manner of things. As you might expect, the aviation industry has been an early mover on the manufacturing side – you might remember reading an earlier blog about how ceramic matrix composites have been used to 3D print components for CFM’s new LEAP engine.

Now, a new study from Northwestern University has shown that manufacturing certain components through 3D printing can produce significant emissions savings. The team of academics at Northwestern looked into the lifecycle environmental effects of 3D printing in aviation manufacturing and have drawn some pretty positive conclusions.

Looking at examples of small metal parts of aircraft (things like brackets or seat buckles) made through 3D printing and by conventional methods, they found that there could be up to a 7% saving in weight using 3D printing. While that might not sound like a lot, once you add up the weight of all these parts, it actually becomes quite significant.

Building a particular component layer by layer, as is done with 3D printing, is actually far more efficient than normal processes because it cuts out any unnecessary excess metal. Not only does this create more efficient aircraft, by burning less fuel and therefore producing less emissions, but it is also far less wasteful from a raw materials point of view. The process is actually also more energy efficient, which allows for more CO2 savings!

Looking ahead to the future, some experts have suggested that manufacturing components through 3D printing could have even more fuel savings benefits by, for example, blending engines directly into  a wing to improve aerodynamics. We would not be surprised if 3D printing becomes a lot more common in aircraft manufacturing in the future!