Boeing has signed a deal with a Norwegian firm to 3D print titanium aeroplane components, in order to eventually reduce the costs of producing each 787 Dreamliner by between $2-$3m (£1.6-£2.4m).
The 787 Dreamliner contains more components made from titanium than any other Boeing aircraft – about 14% of the total airframe – because titanium can withstand comparable loads far better than aluminium and is highly resistant to erosion. Using a composite made from carbon fibre and titanium for the fuselage and wings would also be 20% lighter than aluminium.
However, titanium is seven times more expensive than aluminium, and it makes up $17m of the total $265m cost of a Dreamliner, so the aerospace manufacturer is turning to 3D printing, also known as "additive manufacturing", which is a new technology that enables industries to manufacture materials much faster and cheaper than the traditional injection moulding technique.
"This means $2m-$3m in savings for each Dreamliner, at least," Chip Yates, Norsk Titanium's vice president of marketing told Reuters.
Boeing hired Norsk Titanium AS to develop four 3D printed titanium parts for the 787 Dreamliner and to seek out and obtain certification from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the parts are safe for use in aircrafts.
Since Grade 2 Commercially Pure Titanium is already considered to be safe for aircraft, Norsk and Boeing anticipate that the FAA will give its approval for Norsk's signature carbon fibre-titanium composite material later this year, which will enable production using 3D printed parts to begin in 2018.
Once the composite material is given approval, Norsk will be able to print out any number of 3D printed components without each specific component needing to be certified by the FAA, which will enable the millions in promised savings.
In the UK, BAE Systems is already 3D printing parts from titanium and Flame Retardant Nylon to help speed up the manufacturing processes for the Eurofighter Typhoon and the BAE Systems Hawk fighter jets, and General Electric is 3D printing metal fuel nozzles for aircraft engines.
However, Boeing and Norsk insist that they are the first to develop 3D printed structural components designed to bear the stress of an airframe in flight.