Complex Made Simple

Could 3D printing save the aviation sector’s profit margins?

3D printing could hold an answer to the aviation sector's oldest challenge: fuel costs.

From geopolitical tensions, to an ongoing US-China trade war, as well as fluctuating oil prices, the aviation sector has seen its fair share of hardships Fuel costs continue to be one of the largest drains on airlines' profit margins 3D printing could hold the key to this problem

The aviation sector today faces many challenges. From geopolitical tensions, to an ongoing US-China trade war, as well as fluctuating oil prices, the sector has seen its fair share of hardships. Still, the aviation sector has found its way of out of the fire.

“The aviation industry has been thoroughly enjoying an extended bull run for the past decade,” KPMG noted in their 2019 Aviation Industry Leaders Report. “Airlines have had access to cheap finance as tough competition pushed down lease rates and debt costs.”

“How long more can this bull run?” KPMG continued. “It has been the question asked for the last number of years. The overall impression heading into 2019 is that while industry fundamentals remain strong – in particular high passenger growth, though cooling, – there are signs that building geopolitical, macroeconomic and industry headwinds will impact the industry over the next 24 months. Varying political tensions and potential trade wars, rising interest rates, volatile oil costs, a strong US dollar, slowing economies, increasing production rates, and MRO and infrastructure capacity constraints are all impacting the aviation sector.”

While not much can be done by airlines to control things like a trade-war, they can however address operational costs which are eating into their profit margins, and in turn forcing them to raise their prices. 

The answer to this financial dilemma, which might come as a surprise, could very possibly be 3D printing (3DP). 

How can 3D printing cut costs?

Today, fuel continues to be the greatest culprit behind increasing costs for airlines. 

According to KPMG’s study, IATA reports that airline fuel costs will rise from an annual worldwide spend of $180bn in 2018 to $200bn in 2019 , representing 24% of total airline operating costs. 

“Fuel costs will always represent a headwind for airlines to tackle but oil price rises may provide opportunities for Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) and lessors as airlines turn to more fuel-efficient aircraft.”

“One might assume that the larger the plane, the more fuel-efficient it is per passenger due to economies of scale,” the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), said. “But in the case of flights over the Pacific, conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong. Size matters, but not in the way you think.”

Graph: ICCT

The answer to that fuel efficiency issue, then, lies with 3D printing. 

John Power, an alumni of the Harvard Business School, explains: “[3D printing] has the potential to emerge from a niche status to become a game changer in aircraft manufacturing by reducing production costs, increasing product performance, improving supply chain flexibility, and reducing inventory costs.”

Aviation news site Airliner Watch (AW) explains that 3D printing technology can lower the weight of an aircraft by 55% on average. This would do wonders for fuel efficiencies, not to mention the reduced carbon footprint airlines would be producing. 

“Boeing already has 60,000 3D-printed parts used in its aircraft, which is still relatively a small number, considering that a Boeing 747 consists of six million parts,” AW said.

Etihad Airways has already tried their hand at 3D printing.

Power notes that a “General Electric (GE) fuel nozzle consisted of 20 different components. With 3DP, that nozzle is manufactured in one piece, reducing assembly times and costs, but most importantly, enhancing product performance. Reducing components per product improves durability and optimizes weight without compromising reliability. 

“According to GE, its 3DP nozzle has a 5 times longer lifetime and yearly fuel savings of $1.6M per airline.”

Saj Ahmad, Chief Analyst at StrategicAero Reseaerch, tells AMEinfo: “We’ve seen GE Aviation’s partner, CFM International, launch the LEAP family of engines on the 737MAX and A320neo – these engines feature complex weight saving components. Not only are they lighter, which means less airplane weight and improved fuel burn, all of which helps an airlines bottom line and maintenance costs, but these engines are more durable, robust and reliable and require less frequent shop visits.”

He continued: “Translated, that means more time on the wing in the air making money than being parked on the ground doing nothing while losing money. We’ve seen the technological difficulties that some airlines are having due to engine selection(s), but its clear that the industrial advantages that 3D printing into engine and now airplane parts means that airlines can be better informed about which models to choose when making such significant investments.”

If OEMs can replicate these results across a wide array of jet components, the savings the entire industry would be making would be entirely unprecedented. It would further prepare the sector for market shocks.

This trend has carried over to the Middle East. Last year, Etihad partnered with EOD systems to begin 3D printing cabin interior components.