Aerospace Industry Ready to 3D-Print Their Tools


Imagine wanting to use carbon fiber to make a part for your airplane only to discover that the time and cost of producing the tool is almost as much as that of creating the actual part. This conundrum is something the aerospace industry has been dealing with for years. A solution based in 3D printing appears ready for prime time.

A recent announcement from Boeing and Thermwood Corporation indicate that their partnership has produced a means of 3D printing single-piece tools with the use of additive manufacturing technology. The first tool they have produced will be used in Boeing’s 777X program.

A Difference in Tools

Rock West Composites, a Utah company that specializes in carbon fiber and other composite materials, explains that tooling in composites is a bit different. Where a tool in the tool and die sector is essentially a mount for parts being fabricated, a composites tool is really a mold into which layers of composite material are placed.

Tooling is especially challenging in aerospace manufacturing because of the sheer size of some of the parts being produced. Take fuselage panels and wings, for example. Both are extremely large. Not only that, but companies like Boeing need their tools to last as long as possible. If they had to make a new tool for every layup, they would go broke doing so.

The end result of the tooling problem leaves companies like Boeing in a tight spot. They want to bring down the cost of their planes without sacrificing carbon fiber utilization, but every new instance of carbon fiber in a plane’s design requires yet another expensive tool.

The 3D Printing Solution

At some point, Boeing decided that the best material for some of their tools would be carbon fiber. And why not? A carbon fiber tool is comparatively lightweight, easy to handle, and open to the kinds of design innovations the aerospace industry needs. But producing a carbon fiber tool is expensive. Why? Because you need tools to make the tool.

To work this out, Boeing turned to 3D printing. Their partnership with Thermwood Corporation was intended, from the start, to find a better way to fabricate carbon fiber tools. Boeing’s attention was firmly focused on 3D printing as the basis for their much-needed solution.

The two companies developed a large-scale additive manufacturing machine along with a 3D printer capable of vertical layer printing. The latter was extremely important in that it eliminated the need to create several 3D components that would ultimately be assembled to create the final tool. With vertical layer printing, the entire tool can be fabricated as a single piece.

Saving Time and Money

It turns out that the 3D printing solution makes it possible to fabricate a new, single piece tool in a fraction of the time. What used to take weeks can now be done in days. Boeing’s initial prototype tool is a 20% carbon fiber-reinforced piece printed with Thermwood’s 3D printer.

Boeing could not be happier with the results. They can now produce a single piece tool much more quickly and less expensively. Furthermore, they are confident that their 3D printing solution will make it possible for them to produce future large-scale tooling for regular production much more quickly than current fabricating processes. They believe that this stands for a significant step forward in advancing the use of carbon fiber in aerospace manufacturing.

Look for other aerospace companies to follow Boeing’s lead. A year from now, 3D printing could be the industry norm for producing both tools and finished parts.