The aviation trade is facing a dilemma as passenger demand for flights goes through the roof while customers increasingly demand more for less from airlines.

In 2016 alone there are expected to be more than 3.7 billion people boarding flights around the world. As a result, Boeing has predicted that accommodating the huge increase in passengers and cargo will require 38,050 new airplanes in the next 20 years, at the cost of $5.6 trillion.

Airlines are therefore under huge margin pressure. Travelers expect lower ticket prices with higher service, at the same time as acquisition and operational costs are expected to decrease. This means something has to give. This massive fleet of new aircraft can’t be subsidized through increasing flight prices with customers increasingly expecting airlines to keep costs down, while there’s also a huge expectation on airlines to be more punctual and reliable than ever when it comes to on-time flight statistics.

Aerospace businesses are therefore having to explore further afield for new answers to this conundrum. OEMs have to consistently improve the processes and technologies they use within the manufacturing and service processes. In this effort to innovate, 3D printing provides a platform to challenge today’s manufacturing processes. This allows them to use new material to dramatically reduce vehicle weight or quickly create a new tool to improve manufacturing.

Product Redesign

Airplane manufacturers are using advanced materials to reimagine their business models. Innovations like 3D printing are transforming the industry’s value chain, approach and time to market, shortening development cycles and streamlining their entire production process. R&D has used 3D printing for years to reduce the time of idea-to-prototype and now, manufacturing is starting to adopt the concept more broadly.

3D printing is revolutionizing manufacturing by removing many of the traditional costs, such as stocking inventory. Users can now print the parts and tools they need, when they need them, using multiple materials, including metals, plastics, and ceramics. This is providing manufacturing and logistical cost savings while reducing CO2 emissions and eliminating complex supply chain issues.

As more aircraft operators or maintenance companies utilize 3D printing and use machines to print different parts for different airplane models, it will allow airlines to establish a more flexible parts distribution system. It will also allow them to produce parts for production should a supplier not deliver on time without impacting on the aim of achieving near-zero unplanned downtime on commercial flights, as well as boosting production turnaround at a lower cost.

For example, being able to 3D print all the possible components of an A350 aircraft could reduce the weight of it by nearly a ton (according to 3D printing manufacturer APWorks) – providing on-demand production of aerospace components while meeting the high-quality standards necessary to make the aircraft fly. It also allows Airbus to use designs that, until just a few years ago, could only be dreamed of, such as structure designs based on the strong, elegant and lightweight natural design of a water lily that grows in the Amazon River.

But replicating complex designs from the natural world is only the beginning. 3D printed airframe parts will be up to 55% lighter than traditional parts, and they will also be stronger. Furthermore, they are created in a new manufacturing process that consumes 90% less energy, uses 95% less raw material, and allows Airbus to consolidate components and streamline its production process. Airbus plans to build on this by printing aluminium parts in 2017, begin printing products like spoilers in 2018 and hopes to be able to 3D print an entire fuselage by 2025.

These major benefits are expected to see the 3D printing industry expand dramatically as equipment and material costs decrease, to the extent that it could have a bigger impact on manufacturing than any other technology. This will see it disrupt every aspect of manufacturing, from initial design through to shop-floor setup, supply chain, logistics and distribution.

Furthermore, technologies like automation, hyper-connectivity, and artificial intelligence are enhancing engineering, manufacturing and the supply chain to improve businesses’ understanding of their product design process. The Internet of Things (IoT) will provide more data from the manufacturing process to improve the future design, increase reuse of part design and reduce the number of design variants.

Software Enables New Models and Solves Issues

In the 1980s, Rolls-Royce introduced “power-by-the-hour” as a new business model offering a fixed maintenance cost instead of having to purchase the engine. Rolls Royce had access to the operational data through sensors in its engines and managed the maintenance data which, combined with engineering knowledge, enabled it to provide higher uptime.

This business model has since been adopted by many companies in the aviation industry, but the next generation of power-by-the-hour will provide real-time visibility, predictability and optimisation across various data sources from airlines, airports, flight operations, engines and more. Potential risks will be predicted in real-time to provide feedback to pilots and engineers and to reduce unscheduled maintenance events. We’re seeing innovative technology leaders such as SpaceX, Google and GE Digital entering the A&D market and creating new revenue streams based on these insights.

The production process is also being enhanced by real-time dashboards, which provide simulations, recommendations and predictions to provide unparalleled levels of quality, scope and granularity of information. This predictive, root-cause analysis allows manufacturers to understand failures earlier and with more accuracy, and in turn, reduce rework and therefore production costs and stabilize the process.

This, combined with embedded network intelligence and machine learning, will become an integral part of maintenance, repair and operations process. We can now arm technicians with mobile devices, wearables, 3D product visualization, real-time data and virtual collaboration to solve customer issues more effectively than ever before.

Advances in technology are helping businesses across the aviation industry to meet the huge demand for new aircraft while keeping costs down for customers. The rise of 3D printing is a critical part of this journey, revolutionizing the traditional aircraft manufacturing process and helping smaller companies to challenge larger manufacturers with new business models.

It won’t be a fit for every manufacturing application, but businesses need to build a strategy, find their sweet spots and begin exploiting 3D printing within their own unique contexts before they get left behind as the industry changes around them.

Torsten Welte is Global VP and Head of Industrial Business Unit for Aerospace & Defence at SAP.