3D printing could ease Brexit uncertainty

22 Feb 2017
Paul Adams, head of aerospace and defence at Vendigital

Paul Adams, head of aerospace and defence at Vendigital

Since the UK voted to leave the EU in June of 2016, different sectors have been feeling the impact of an unstable economic climate, not least aerospace, writes Paul Adams, head of aerospace and defence at supply chain firm, Vendigital.

With a developing industry trend of globalised supply chains, airlines from countries with low labour costs such as China and India are placing increased orders for civil aircrafts, placing pressure on the likes of Airbus and Boeing to place work within their particular regions.

Combined, these two factors are having a significant impact on prices within aerospace supply chains and firms that are unable to cut costs must find a way to differentiate themselves from their competitors in order to maintain and grow market share.

Investing in 3D printing and other advanced manufacturing techniques is an important way that aerospace companies can set themselves apart from the marketplace and attract foreign investment.

Additive manufacturing, as it is more commonly known in the aerospace sector, is often perceived as a manufacturing method for the future, however, this is a misconception. Allowing manufacturers to form lighter and stronger components and reduce waste, this technique is already being used to produce non-critical components such as aircraft seating.

However, while applying 3D printing in this way allows firms to reduce production costs, its true value will be realised 10 or 15 years down the line when new aircraft are designed specifically with the technique in mind. Although developments in the technology have not yet reached this stage, it is essential that aerospace companies prove their expertise now in order to be in the best position for winning future investments.

When purchasing 3D printing technology, firms should consider their investment strategy carefully and ensure they understand the associated risks in order to maximise its value. Both the machinery and powder elements of additive manufacturing have been under development for some time, with much of this work previously focused on the automotive sector. With powder technology only recently achieving a level of sophistication suitable for the aerospace sector, companies should take great care to ensure that they both attain the correct type of powder and that they possess a full understanding of how it behaves during the manufacturing process. As additive manufacturing is a developing method of manufacture, increasingly large numbers of people are filing patents, making it critical that firms not only understand the IP involved but get in early.

Additionally, manufacturers need to consider how they plan to facilitate rapid production using the 3D printing process and the resulting demands on their supply chains. This technology is just emerging as a method of mass production for the creation of complex structural components within the aerospace sector. With OEMs often used to pushing the detailed design of sub-components into their supply chains, design capability will also be a particularly important factor for big tier one manufacturers to bear in mind.

For aircraft companies looking to take advantage of additive manufacturing, there are two alternative approaches. For most UK firms, moving quickly to invest in 3D printing ahead of competitors will provide a certain advantage, allowing them to establish themselves within the sector. This will place them in a good position for securing deals when advancements in this technology occur in the future. However, for companies unwilling to involve themselves in the technology development process, an alternative and perhaps more fruitful approach is to hang back and make an acquisition of either IP or manufacturing capability once the technology has been developed.

At the 2016 Delhi Airshow, Airbus sparked the imagination of the aerospace sector by displaying the first aircraft to be produced solely using 3D printing. However, in reality, the complexity involved in producing many aircraft components would make investing in specialist machines for this purpose unfeasible for most.

Despite this fact, developments in alternative manufacturing techniques will eventually lead to the use of 3D printing for larger and more critical parts over the years to come. By taking the time to learn about the necessary IP and plan their investment strategy carefully, aerospace firms can manoeuvre themselves into the best position possible to overcome economic instability and increase market share within a competitive industry.