An important point to remember at this stage in the history of additive manufacturing (AM) is that there’s a unique timeline of progress for every industry currently applying the technology. That is, automotive parts, for example, are on a completely different timeline than components produced for the oil and gas industry, which are both on different timelines compared to 3D printed food, etc. Moreover, this isn’t true simply when comparing one industry to another; it can also be said about the technology’s status when comparing the industries of different regions to one another, or even different companies within the same industry and region. In this sense, the timeline for “Industrial Revolution 4.0” is a bit like a hyper-accelerated version of the timeline characterizing the original industrial revolution: the 2020s will be like if the 19th century happened in a single decade.
On the other hand, if there’s one industry with greater continuity across the board on a global level than all others, it’s probably aerospace. This is a bit unsurprising, considering the existing nature and role of conventional airplane production relative to all other, more conventional forms of heavy industry. Exemplifying this state-of-affairs is an announcement just made by the French manufacturer of aviation components JPB Système, regarding recent trial results for the use of metal AM: specifically, metal binder jetting (MBJ).
Founded in 1993, JPB is a specialty aerospace manufacturer with a focus on what it calls Lockwireless Anti-Rotational Devices, that is self-locking elements for fittings that are opened and closed often. Meant to supplant wires, pins and washers that typically fasten fittings, these devices are meant to be more durable and longer lasting. In turn, JPB has supplied such aerospace giants as Safran, Pratt & Whitney, GE and Rolls-Royce, all of whom are already working with various forms of metal 3D printing.
The French firm doesn’t indicate what form of MBJ it is using—whether it be HP’s Metal Jet, Desktop Metal/ExOne’s binder jetting, Digital Metal, or GE’s own MBJ currently in development. It also doesn’t indicate what parts it is experimenting with, so it could be related to any of its fittings, fasteners and plugs.
One of the main highlights from the company’s press release is the reduction of lead times by as much as 80% for some parts, as well as a weight savings of as much as 30%. These particular goals as well as roughly those target numbers are pretty much in line with what the industry as a whole is aiming for, indicating far more consistency in terms of application than, say, the automotive industry, which is testing the use of AM for a much wider variety of objectives.
In JPB’s press release, Jocelyn Vecchio, the company’s Director of Engineering and Innovation, said, “In contrast [to the typical method of producing parts via casting in a foundry], using MBJ manufacturing, we could produce the same part [with lead times of around six months using conventional methods] in about four weeks…The flexibility of this technology also means that, it doesn’t take any longer to produce 100 different parts than it would 100 identical parts.” Benjamin Sangouard, Research Engineer for the company, added, “A lighter aircraft means less fuel, which means less cost and reduced emissions, which is of course important from a sustainability perspective.”
The other major takeaway from the announcement is a related one: JPB also reports success with streamlining the number of components for production by incorporating three components into one, which, again, contains significant potential for reducing the lead time involved in production, as well as the weight of the parts. Here, once more, this is a fairly standard objective for applying AM to airplane manufacturing.
All of this suggests a situation where, because of the need to be less rather than more innovative than other industries — or at least, innovative in a narrower variety of ways — aviation manufacturing will once again expand its lead over the rest of heavy industry in controlling global supply chains for critical industrial materials.
As to JPB’s own use of metal 3D printing, we may learn more when the company opens a new facility in Villaroche, south of Paris in 2023. Partly government funded, the site will see the integration of AM, along with other technologies dedicated to Industry 4.0 production.
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