Boeing turns to 3D-printed parts to save millions on its 787 Dreamliner

The move will reduce production costs for each Dreamliner by $2M to $3M

Boeing will begin using at least four 3D-printed titanium parts to construct its 787 Dreamliner aircraft and may some day rely on as many as 1,000 parts created via  additive manufacturing.

Boeing has hired Oslo, Norway-based Norsk Titanium AS to print the parts. It marks the first time that FAA-approved, 3D-printed titanium parts will be used as structural components on a commercial aircraft, according to the company.

The parts will be used near the rear of the Dreamliner, a mid-sized, wide-body, twin-engine jet airliner. Boeing builds about 144 Dreamliners each year.

3D printed aircraft parts Norsk Titanium AS

One of four 3D printed titanium parts Boeing will be using in its 787 Dreamliner aircraft.

Printing 3D parts for Boeing will allow the aircraft manufacturer to eventually reduce the production costs for each 787 Dreamliner by as much as $3 million, Norsk Titanium said.

"We are providing Boeing with an initial quantity of four parts per 787 airplane and are actively working to expand this order to possibly more than 1,000 parts per airplane, which if we achieve, could save Boeing $2 million to $3 million per airplane some years from now," a Norsk Titanium spokesman said via email to Computerworld. "If we achieve our goal of selling over 1,000 parts per 787, they would be located in a wide variety of structural applications."

The use of 3D printing technology is growing at an exponential rate, Boeing said, and interest in using it "has increased dramatically during the past few years."

"3D printing offers great potential to reduce the cost and weight of aircraft structures and improve the ability of engineers to design parts purely for their eventual function in a vehicle system," a Boeing spokesperson said in an email. "3D printing enables the design and production of integral structures. This means converting an assembly and several structures into one piece."

3D printed aircraft parts Norsk Titanium AS

Norsk Titanium's MERKE IV Rapid Plasma Deposition™ 3D printer creating an aircraft part.

Boeing's use of Norsk Titanium's parts is not the company's first foray into the use 3D printing technology.

Last year, Boeing said it was testing an industrial 3D printer from Stratasys that can build objects of virtually any size using materials such as carbon fiber for lighter weight and stronger parts. The printers were designed to address the requirements of aerospace, automotive and other industries by being able to build completed parts with repeatable mechanical properties.

Airbus, Boeing and defense contractor Raytheon have all experimented with additive manufacturing to develop new components.

In 2015, General Electric revealed that it had completed a multi-year project to print a working jet engine at its Additive Development Center outside Cincinnati.

That same year, Monash University in Australia and its spinoff Amaero Engineering have even 3D printed entire jet engines as proof of concepts.

"Boeing is working to accelerate the use of 3D printing technology in its production in ways that make sense for the company and provides value without increasing risk for our customers," a company spokesperson said.

Norsk Titanium uses what it calls Rapid Plasma Deposition technology, which melts titanium wire using plasma torches in an atmosphere of argon gas. Like desktop 3D printers that use melted thermoplastics, Norsk Titanium deposits layer after layer of titanium to build a part.

"From the outset, the 787 has been the hallmark of innovation and efficiency," John Byrne, vice president of Airplane Materials and Structures, Supplier Management, for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a statement. "We are always looking at the latest technologies to drive cost reduction, performance and value to our customers and Norsk Titanium's RPD capability fits the bill in a new and creative way."

Boeing and Norsk Titanium said they were required to undergo "a rigorous testing program with FAA certification deliverables." That testing was completed in February.

Norsk Titanium said the Dreamliner 3D printed components will be on display at the International Paris Airshow Le Bourget June 19-25, along with a full-scale mock-up of the company's patented MERKE IV Rapid Plasma Deposition 3D printer that produced the structural parts.

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