Aerospace Industry

Your masterclass in product design and development


Protolabs’ Insight video series

Our Insight video series will help you master digital manufacturing.

Every Friday we’ll post a new video – each one giving you a deeper Insight into how to design better parts. We’ll cover specific topics such as choosing the right 3D printing material, optimising your design for CNC machining, surface finishes for moulded parts, and much more besides.

So join us and don’t miss out.


Insight: Aerospace Industry


Hello and welcome to this week’s Insight.

Today we’re we are going to reach for the skies and take a closer look at how design engineers can use digital manufacturing in the aerospace industry.  In particular we will look at what role 3D printing plays and what materials you can use with this technology.

The aerospace industry, from an engineering perspective, faces a number of ongoing challenges. Safety is always number one on the list so new parts or components must be right. There are also the constant challenges of reducing weight and keeping manufacturing costs down. This means that new materials and techniques are playing an increasingly important role in component design.



This drive to lower costs while meeting higher standards and increased capability puts a huge strain on an organisation’s product and component development.  If you are going to design new components in new materials, then they need testing and validating quickly. 

3D printing allows design engineers to iterate designs more quickly and be able to prototype them in the final materials. If you need a prototype, that means that you can speed up validation and testing and reiterate it to make sure that the component meets all your criteria.



The other huge advantage of 3D printing is that it allows you to design complex geometries and shapes that are simply not possible using other manufacturing technologies. You might for example want to redesign parts to save weight, perhaps by hollowing them out or using a honeycomb structure.

We have also seen examples of where a component that was previously constructed from several parts being redesigned using 3D printing so that it is now constructed from one piece.

Plus you can now 3D print parts in far more metals and plastics than ever before. It’s a really exciting time in product development – technology is changing rapidly and what was impossible recently is now possible today. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.



Many aerospace components will be metal. It means that generally your supplier would use an industrial 3D printing process called direct metal laser sintering or DMLS.  If you want to know more about this technology, then take a look at a previous Insight video in which I cover how it works and explore what it can be used for.

But let’s briefly recap. The process uses metal powder from your chosen alloy and builds up a part by sintering each layer. It starts with the support structures and then moves onto the part itself using a laser to microweld each cross section. This layer by layer approach makes it possible to design organic geometries and complex passages that can’t be cast or machined.

Okay what are some of the more common metals that you can use this amazing technology for?

We’ll start with titanium. This is a popular choice because it’s lightweight and strong offering excellent corrosion and temperature resistance. Other alloys that offer similar characteristics are Inconel 718 and cobalt chrome.

Stainless steel, in particular SS 17-4 PH, is also very popular due to its high strength, good corrosion resistance and good mechanical properties at up to 315oC. 

And now to aluminium. This metal’s high strength to weight ratio makes it a great candidate for housing and brackets to support high loading.

It should be pointed out that all of these metals can also be machined and exactly how you manufacture the part will depend on your needs. For unbiased advice, it’s a good idea to find a manufacturing or prototyping partner that uses both technologies.

Moving away from metals, the final material on my list is liquid silicone rubber. This is a great alternative to either polycarbonate or PMMA. It can also be used in 3D printing and injection moulding.

Of course, the problem with any list for an industry is that it is not complete.  Whether you choose to use 3D printing, CNC machining or injection moulding, the number of materials available to you is immense. 



Manufacturing technology is improving all the time, which means that what was previously impossible in a given material may now be possible. At Protolabs, for example, we can now also 3D print a copper alloy.

It is well worth finding a good supplier and talking to them regularly to make sure that you don’t miss new opportunities. 

There’s never been a better time to explore digital manufacturing. It allows you to design parts or components that are more cost effective and better than their older versions. And just to make sure, you can prototype and test them more quickly than ever in the material that the final part will be manufactured from.

That’s it for this week. I look forward to seeing you again next Friday.



With special thanks to Natalie Constable.

Subscribe to "Insights"

Subscribe now and never miss Protolabs' Insight videos.

Click here