@Richard_Horne The US vendors have been almost exclusively selling their services to the defense industry and haven’t been real vocal about what they’ve been doing. There are 3D printed parts on many aircraft and a number of military aircraft such as the C-5 have metal 3D printed parts in them. The JSF may have as many as 800 or more 3D printed parts on it including SLS parts, high temp SLS parts, DMLS parts and DMD parts. The Chinese parts in the article are larger than the parts shown publicly by the US vendors, but are well within the capabilities of US vendors.
What Boeing, Airbus, Lockheed and Comac are trying to do now is to use large structural metal parts in aircraft. In order to obtain lighter aircraft, do less assembly, have less assembly risk, have less parts, keep less parts and have optimized geometries they’re increasingly turning to 3D printed parts. The Dreamliner essentially maxed out what one can do currently with composites. The only way forward in aviation is: to get rid of the rivets, get rid of wiring, develop new power technologies, develop better engines, develop newer materials or optimize parts by 3D printing plastic and structural parts. Especially through reducing weight and assembly risk but also by letting more testing and iteration occur 3D printing will, to a large extent, determine the future of aviation. The technology has significant strategic implications for the future of air power. If Comac gets 3D printing right it may succeed in its goal to become one of the largest commercial aircraft vendors in the world using this technology shift to leapfrog Airbus and Boeing. If China manages to commercialize large scale metal 3D printing technologies better than the US can then they can perhaps out innovate the US in next generation fighters or make many good enough planes for the cost of one US plane. Much of the commercial SLS 3D printing capacity has traditionally been used to manufacture drones. Low weight, low parts volume, quick from idea to part all were crucial factors to why many drone manufacturers adopted 3D printing for prototyping and end use parts. If one country succeeds in quickly manufacturing an entire drone using 3D printing then one could put up swarms of thousands of drones over an area and protect this area from any ground assault. If I can 3D print drones faster than you can shoot them down and can do so close to the battlefield then I essentially have an almost infinitely replaceable area deniability weapon. If I then crowdsource the design of this weapon and day after day improve my drone continually then it will become almost impossible for anyone to credibly project power on the other one or on an area that is being guarded by a drone swarm. What good is a carrier battle group if it is being attacked by 5000 drones simultaneously? Systems such as the goalkeeper and phalanx have very high rates of fire but their ranges are 2k to 4k and a single system has up to 2000 rounds. A drone swarm could therefore close so quickly and present such a system with too many targets to bring down. An over the horizon landing amphibious assault is also a non starter if they simply have a vehicle flying that could crash into any and all of your vehicles. Right now a drone is a simple camera that takes many people to operate it and may have a missile capability. But, if drones were largely autonomous via AI and just needed a human to approve a targeting choice then it would be possible to have a 1000 drones up simultaneously each a 100 meters apart along a certain border. If they run out of fuel a new one replaces them, if they are shot down a new one replaces one and another is printed. I think that the Joint Strike Fighter program is essentially a trojan horse for the further commercialization of 3D printing for aerospace applications and the automated manufacturing of entire drones specifically. Our technology has the potential to bring humanity much in terms of medical and manufacturing advances. A lot of the money and research being done currently however is aimed at using 3D printing for warfare. The future of war will be decided by whichever military successfully deploys automated manufacturing so that they can improve their materiel the quickest and make closer to the battlefield.