Printing the future


Unless you are reading this from your flying car, you can be forgiven for being sceptical about technology forecasts. We have all been overpromised many times before. But by 2025 it will be common for aircraft flying into an airport to send a message ahead and get new parts printed out ready for when they land.

One company that firmly believes in 3D printing, or additive manufacturing (AM), is GKN, the aircraft and car parts company. It already makes AM parts for five different business jet programmes, including the Falcon 5X and many aircraft engines (GKN uses the term AM to distinguish from the 3D printing of non-complex parts.)

But Dr Robert Sharman, global head of additive manufacturing at GKN Additive, is convinced that this is just the start (a long interview is here). He says AM will allow engine and aircraft manufacturers to rethink entire systems – not just parts.

“Everything that you see around you looks like it does because of how we make it,” says Sharman. “Holes are round because we drill them. But holes do not have to be round. If you look at your blood vessels, they continually vary in shape and size to reduce pressure loss as your blood flows through your body. AM allows you to generate systems like that that would have been uneconomical or impossible with traditional techniques.”

Making critical metal AM aircraft parts – where lasers are used to fuse each layer – is extremely complicated but it allows manufacturers to do things and use materials that would not be possible using traditional processes. This is why almost all engine and aircraft manufacturers are investing in AM.

“AM will change the world in manufacturing and design. It has started happening today but it is not all going to happen tomorrow,” says Sharman. “We are just at the start of the revolution. It is not a future technology, it is a technology of today, but there is a lot more to come.”

You may still be sceptical, but the 2025 target will easily be met. Several airlines and air forces are planning to start printing non-critical parts in airports next year.