3-D printed titanium to shave millions in Boeing Dreamliner costs

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Visitors take pictures of a model of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner during Japan Aerospace 2016 air show in Tokyo, Japan, October 12, 2016. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Boeing Co hired Norsk Titanium AS to print the first structural titanium parts for its 787 Dreamliner, the Norwegian 3-D printing company said on Monday, paving the way to cost savings of $2 million to $3 million for each plane.

The contract is a major step in Boeing’s effort to cut the cost of its barely profitable 787 and a sign of growing industrial acceptance of the durability of 3-D printed metal parts, allowing them to replace pieces made with more expensive traditional manufacturing in demanding aerospace applications.

Strong, lightweight titanium alloy is seven times more costly than aluminum, and accounts for about $17 million of the cost of a $265 million Dreamliner, industry sources say.

Boeing has been trying to reduce titanium costs on the 787, which requires more of the metal than other models because of its carbon-fiber composite fuselage and wings. Titanium also is used extensively on Airbus Group SE’s rival A350 jet.

“This means $2 million to $3 million in savings for each Dreamliner, at least,” starting in 2018 when many more parts are being printed, Chip Yates, Norsk Titanium’s vice president of marketing, said in a telephone interview.

Boeing declined to comment on the estimate but said Norsk’s technology would help reduce costs.

The aircraft maker in February said it had hired privately held Oxford Performance Materials to print plastic parts for its Starliner spacecraft.

Norsk worked with Boeing for more than a year to design four 787 parts and obtain Federal Aviation Administration certification for them, Yates said.

Norsk expects the U.S. regulatory agency will approve the material properties and production process for the parts later this year, which would “open up the floodgates” and allow Norsk to print thousands of different parts for each Dreamliner, without each part requiring separate FAA approval, Yates said.

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“You’re talking about tons, literally,” on the 787 that would be printed instead of made with traditional, expensive forging and machining, he said.

General Electric Co is already printing metal fuel nozzles for a line of new aircraft engines. But Norsk and Boeing said the titanium parts are the first printed structural components designed to bear the stress of an airframe in flight.

Norsk said that initially it will print in Norway, but is building up a 67,000-square-foot (6,220-square-meter) facility in Plattsburgh in upstate New York, where it aims to have nine printers running by year-end.

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