A study, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, said that 3-D printing aircraft's metal parts could reduce weight and fuel consumption.
Published by researchers at the Northwestern University in US, the study concluded that 3-D printing the lighter and higher performance parts could drastically reduce both manufacturing waste and the weight of the airplane, thus saving fuel and money and decreasing carbon emissions.
"We have suboptimal designs because we're limited by conventional manufacturing," Eric Masanet, who led the study, said. "When you can make something in layer-by-layer fashion, those constraints diminish," said Masanet.
Masanet does not anticipate a change to the crucial parts of the aircraft, such as the wings and engine, any time soon but points out to the potentiality in replacing less flight-critical parts, such as brackets, hinges, seat buckles, and furnishings.
The 3-D printing requires far less raw material inputs and can further produce parts that minimise weight through better design.
According to the study, 3-D printing a bracket reduced its weight from 1.09 kilogrammes to 0.38 kilogrammes. "There are enough parts that, when replaced, could reduce the weight of the aircraft by 4 to 7 per cent. And it could be even more as we move forward. This will save a lot of resources and a lot of fuel," Masanet said.
First, his team estimated that airplane fuel consumption could be reduced by as much as 6.4 per cent, reducing both fossil fuel dependency and greenhouse gas emissions.
Second, their life-cycle analysis found that manufacturing 3-D printed components uses as little as one-third to one-half of the energy currently used in conventional methods.
Manufacturers would also save thousands of tonnes of aluminium, titanium and nickel that are otherwise scrapped every year, researchers said.
Conventional manufacturing methods tend to be inefficient and wasteful. For example, it requires 10 kilogrammes of raw material input into the manufacturing process to produce a 1-kilogramme bracket for an airplane.