3D printing is not normally associated with saving fuel. The processes, particularly for metal, are very energy intensive, and the parts often require a lot of finishing. So why are 3D printed parts being used in aircraft to save millions of gallons of fuel?
The reason is that carefully designed 3D printed parts reduce carbon emissions through their use, not their production. By saving vital grammes per unit, 3D printed parts can have a significant effect on the overall weight of an aircraft and, over the significant operational life of most planes, save a fortune in fuel.
We worked on an example of this approach when we became part of a consortium managed by Exeter University to look at the potential to reduce carbon emissions using 3D printing.
The result was two-fold. First, an experimental design of a new aircraft seat buckle that would save a significant amount of weight. Secondly, we used the project to explore the design limits that affect 3D printing in metal, and produce the first design guidelines for this process.