A study from Northwestern University in Illinois finds that 3D printed metal parts can help reduce the weight of an aircraft by up to 7% percent, boosting fuel efficiency.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Advanced Manufacturing Office backed the study, and the researchers used aircraft industry data to evaluate lifecycle environmental effects of using 3D printing for metal aircraft parts.

(Read "Airbus Model Contains Mor than 1,000 3D-Printed Parts.")

The team says the lighter and higher performance parts produced by 3D printing technology also reduce manufacturing waste.

"The airline industry is an early adopter of 3D printing,” says Northwestern McCormick School of Engineering materials and manufacturing junior professor Eric Masanet. "The main driver is that aircraft require specialised lightweight metal alloys that can be very costly to process."

The team found that 3D components use less than half of the energy used in conventional methods, and can reduce aircraft fuel consumption by approximately 6.4%.

Using 3D printing will also save thousands of tons of aluminum, titanium and nickel.

"We have suboptimal designs because we're limited by conventional manufacturing," says Masanet. "When you can make something in layer-by-layer fashion, those constraints diminish."

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