Optimizing Part Performance in Aerospace Manufacturing

16 April 2024
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Amid renewed investments in defense, and military aerospace, escalating demands for commercial aircraft, and burgeoning opportunities in space exploration and the commercial space industry, aerospace manufacturing is experiencing a notable resurgence.

While technologies like additive manufacturing gain traction, CNC machining remains a cornerstone in aerospace manufacturing, playing a pivotal role in ensuring precision, part performance and reliability within the sector. 

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Image: Unsplash

What is CNC Machining?

 

CNC Machining stands as a computerized manufacturing process where machine-driven cutting tools employ subtractive machining technology to create parts. CAM software is utilized to program tool paths and generate G-code, controlling CNC machines such as mills, routers, lathes, and wire EDMs. The significance lies in the automation of processes, minimizing the potential for human error and ensuring precision in the manufacturing workflow.

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Image: Alexander Mils 

CNC Machining in the Aerospace and Aviation Industry

 

Imagine an average Boeing 777, comprising 3 million individual parts, soaring through the skies for 3,500 hours annually over a 30-year lifespan. With such extensive flight time, the aircraft heavily relies on high-quality parts to endure the challenging conditions of air travel.

CNC machining has been a pivotal force in the aerospace industry for an extended period. Let’s delve into the diverse ways in which CNC machining contributes to enhancing performance in the aerospace sector:

1. Fabricating Lightweight Metals (and Carbon Fiber)

Aircraft fuel efficiency is directly tied to weight, making lightweight materials crucial for cost-effectiveness. While robust, conventional metals like steel are suboptimal for aircraft components due to their weight. In the aerospace industry, the preference is for strong and lightweight metals such as titanium and aluminum alloys.

Titanium, being 45% lighter and stronger than steel, boasts corrosion resistance and can endure extreme temperatures, ensuring longevity and consistent performance. A notable aerospace-grade titanium is Ti6Al4V, also known as Grade 5 or TC4.

Aluminum, though about half as strong as titanium, is cost-effective due to its superior weight-saving properties, making it a popular choice in the aerospace industry. Al7075-T6 is a common aerospace-grade aluminum.

Carbon fiber, known for its lightweight nature, high strength-to-weight ratio, and fatigue resistance, is gaining prominence in aerospace components. CNC machining excels in producing flat, high-precision carbon fiber parts, further contributing to the industry’s evolution.

 

2. High-Performance Plastic Parts 

CNC machinery is also compatible with plastics, expanding its applications beyond metals in aircraft manufacturing. While metal components find extensive use in the functional structures of an aircraft, numerous interior elements like wall panels, ventilation ducts, aircraft doors, bearings, and more are crafted from plastics—particularly high-performance plastics. These aerospace-grade plastics, such as PEEK and other high-performance polymers, combine lightweight properties with robustness, meeting stringent aerospace fire retardant regulations.

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Image: Justin Lim 

3. Forming Complex Models and Geometries

The aerospace industry places a high value on complex designs and precision for several crucial reasons. These attributes contribute to shedding unnecessary weight without compromising quality or performance, optimizing overall performance, achieving cost efficiency, and ensuring compliance with rigorous regulatory standards.

While 3 and 4-axis CNC machines provide a sufficient level of precision for many aircraft components, instances requiring greater complexity or precision benefit from the availability of 5-axis milling machines. These machines enable simultaneous machining, drilling, and maneuvering along the X, Y, Z, and linear axes without the need to rearrange or refix the component, enhancing efficiency and precision in manufacturing processes.

 

4. Building High-Precision Parts

High-precision machining plays a crucial role in meticulously manufacturing aircraft parts according to specified requirements and delivering them within tight tolerances. With CNC machining, the margin for human error is minimized, offering a reliable solution in an industry where part failure during flight is not an option.

Precision machining is not only vital for producing end-use aircraft components but also holds significant importance in aerospace research and development (R&D), where exacting standards and precision are essential for advancing innovation and ensuring the safety and reliability of aerospace technologies.

 

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Image: Zmorph

 

5. Rapid Prototyping

While 3D printing is often the initial thought for rapid prototyping solutions, many may not be aware that CNC machining stands out as an ideal one-off prototyping solution, particularly for metal aerospace components. Its speed, dimensional accuracy, and capability to create robust mechanical parts with precise tolerances make it an excellent choice. In the research and development-intensive aerospace industry, CNC machining plays a pivotal role in efficiently and swiftly prototyping new component designs, facilitating rigorous testing, and allowing for necessary adjustments.

Report by Danny Weller

 

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