Advanced manufacturing technologies are quite literally reshaping the face of aviation.
Aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney is currently developing two techniques to create engine parts that they call additive manufacturing. Through this process, rather than casting metal in a mold, a metal powder media is partially melted by lasers to form to the shape of the component being built.
Think of it as heavy duty 3D printing. Additive manufacturing reduces waste, speeds production times, and enables design execution that might otherwise not be possible with typical production methods. For example, the additive manufacturing process is capable of making propellers that are built for strength on one end and flexibility on the other. The possibilities could very well change the way that modern aircraft is designed.
One such possibility being looked at by Pratt & Whitney is engines that have fewer parts, needing less assembly, and therefore are cheaper to make. According to Mark Drela, aeronautics and astronautics professor at MIT, in a Technology Review article, some of these changes could cut fuel consumption. "[The benefits] add up to very large fuel burn reductions," said Drela, and savings up to 50%, "are not inconceivable."
The aerospace industry is among the first to pursue opportunities in additive manufacturing. Even the smallest improvements to performance or reductions in weight can lead to massive fuel savings, and therefore make it sensible to pay a high initial cost to create parts using this new technology.