Boeing is testing a 3-D-printed trim and drill tool in building its 777X passenger jet. The tool, developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is 17.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide, stands 1.5 feet tall and weighs about 1,650 pounds. It was printed in 30 hours using carbon fiber and ABS thermoplastic composite materials.

3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is being adopted as rapidly as the technology can advance because of its cost-, labor- and time-saving advantages. Moreover, the computer-based technology, which uses various polymers, liquid metals or a combination of substances to create products by building them up layer by layer, allows for creation of products that would be difficult or impossible to make using traditional methods.

ORNL-developed 3D-printed trim and drill tool is 17.5 feet long and weighs in at 1,650 pounds.ORNL-developed 3D-printed trim and drill tool is 17.5 feet long and weighs in at 1,650 pounds.“The existing, more expensive metallic tooling option we currently use comes from a supplier and typically takes three months to manufacture using conventional techniques,” says Leo Christodoulou, Boeing’s director of structures and materials. “Additively manufactured tools, such as the 777X wing trim tool, will save energy, time, labor, and production cost and are part of our overall strategy to apply 3-D printing technology in key production areas.”

Boeing plans to use the low-cost additively manufactured tool in the company’s new production facility in St. Louis, MO. The tool will be used to secure the jet’s composite wing skin for drilling and machining before assembly. Production of the 777X is scheduled to begin in 2017 with first delivery targeted for 2020.

Boeing isn’t the only large manufacturer to adopt the technology. At the Berlin air show in June, Airbus unveiled a test aircraft made using additive manufacturing to illustrate how its aircraft of the future will be built.

GE is considering 3D printing turbine blades for the Boeing 777X GE9X engines, while Honeywell Aerospace has been investing in additive manufacturing techniques, with 3D printing labs now in the U.S., China, India, and Europe.

And, as research into the process continues to ramp up, more manufacturing tools, like Boeing’s trim tool, are sure to come.

Vlastimil Kunc, leader of ORNL’s polymer materials development team, says the fact that “using 3D printing, we could design the tool with less material and without compromising its function” indicates the advances ORNL and other researchers are making in large-scale additive manufacturing composites research.

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