Comparison: Conventional steel cast bracket design (left), and EOS titanium 3D printed bracket design (right)

Hard hit during the economic downturn that began in 2008, the American manufacturing industry is just starting to recover – albeit at a snail's pace. Within the midst of this slow recovery, many may believe America's manufacturing might never return to its pre-recession glory days. Yet a glimmer of hope is the rising use of additive manufacturing which can bring cost savings and increased efficiencies.

Embracing this new additive future are large aerospace manufacturing companies such as Boeing and GE. Fully committed to additive processes, both companies are producing a wide range of aircraft parts through 3D metal printing. But for small to mid-size aerospace manufacturers (SMMs) adopting 3D printing is a game of  "wait and see ". For these aerospace SMMs the slow recovery is compounded by the recent sequestration that has led to cuts in defense spending - making future profitability uncertain. Understandably, such worried manufacturers may be apprehensive to jump on the additive bandwagon. While the allure of additive manufacturing has crossed their minds, the executives in charge continue to be wary about making new, large equipment acquisitions. The challenge is to convince them that integrating additive metal processes into their current workflows will bring a return on investment.

In order to help alleviate such concerns a recently released sustainability study by EOS and the Airbus Group shows how additive processes provide significant cost savings over more traditional manufacturing methods such as metal pours and CNC subtractive workflows. The report focused on an Airbus A3290 Hinge Bracket, comparing the traditional steel casting manufacturing process with DMLS (direct metal laser sintering). By investigating the complete lifecycle of the hinge from its early manufacturing stages to its final use as a working aerospace part, the study found that the additive DMLS process conserved material, allowing for a decrease in weight with no reduction in durability. In other words, by using DMLS, Airbus was able to reduce the weight of the hinge by 10 kilograms – an important consideration as "buy-to-fly-ratios" become more strict.

The EOS Airbus study reaffirmed that by conserving material there was significant cost and energy savings. The DMLS process eliminated waste material that would otherwise occur in CNC subtractive machining. In a traditional metals manufacturing pipeline, the CNC step is used to carve out waste material to make dies for metal forming and to assure final parts can be fitted for proper assembly. In a subtractive workflow the metal manufacturer must account for waste material left over from the CNC operation. If you ever had the opportunity to walk the floor of a metal manufacturer's shop, you may have witnessed this yourself. Next to every large CNC machine is a bin to capture the metal shavings attributed to the subtraction of material. These metal shavings (in manufacturing lingo sometimes called "swarf ") must be recycled and that takes additional energy. Other operations in the metal manufacturing pipeline, such as the molten metal pours, can leave a large CO2 footprint.

Overall, the EOS Airbus study found that by using DMLS to create the hinge there was a 25 percent reduction in titanium consumption, which provides significant savings in material cost. In an economic environment where Aerospace manufacturing is becoming more competitive, this cost savings cannot be ignored.

More information about the study can be found on the EOS web site.