Three-dimensional-printing enthusiasts have said for years the technology will do nothing short of revolutionize industries. Now--finally--3-D printers are starting to live up to the hype: Look no further than the runway at your nearest airport.

The $404 billion commercial aircraft manufacturing industry is embracing 3-D-printed airplane parts in a big way, according to the MIT Technology Review. Three-dimensional printing, also known as additive manufacturing, has been around since the 1980s, but only recently has the technology become sophisticated enough to make complex objects like airplane parts. 

GE has a 3-D-printed fuel nozzle that is almost ready to hit the market. This new nozzle is built as one single part, while the previous model consisted of 18 individual pieces that had to be manufactured separately and welded together. A jet engine currently being developed by GE uses 19 of the nozzles, and the company plans to make 30,000 of them each year. The 3-D-printed nozzle is also 25 percent lighter than its predecessor, which means lower fuel costs for airlines. All of this should eventually mean lower ticket prices for travelers.

Other aircraft manufacturers like Airbus also have 3-D plane parts almost ready for commercial use. And the trend is catching on throughout the larger manufacturing world: The Tech Review says companies bought 808 printers for metal manufacturing in 2015, up from 353 in 2013. This is huge news for the 3-D-printing industry--the printers can cost up to a million dollars each.

Other airplane parts currently being 3-D printed include several elements of turboprop engines and a piece of equipment that houses temperature sensors.

With this kind of technology, it's easy to imagine that an entire 3-D-printed plane could be available in the future. Planes that are lighter, cheaper, and prone to fewer mechanical flaws (since more parts would consist of fewer components) would be a win for everyone. The technology could also apply to the space industry, which is seeing costs drop as reusable space technology becomes more realistic. SpaceX says it has lowered the cost of space travel by 30 percent by introducing reusable rockets. Meanwhile, some companies have already found ways to 3-D print objects in outer space, which means cheaper, easier on-the-fly repairs. Additive-manufacturing major parts could lower that cost even more, meaning more accessibility to space travel for non-scientists, millionaires, and maybe eventually the average person. 

Published on: Apr 18, 2016