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3D Printing

ACRP Periodic Report on Transformative Technologies at Airports
- May 7, 2021

Technology Description

For many years, on-demand product fabrication has only been available in science fiction. Giving industries access to any item as they need it would be simply revolutionary. In reality, three-dimensional—or 3D—printing technology is close to doing just that. And though most 3D printing technology initially used types of plastic, more types of material are now available. Further, recent material science advancements have led to the commercialization of more widely accessible consumer and commercial 3D printing. With these advancements, airport operators can start to consider how to best incorporate 3D printing into their operations.

3D printing, also referred to as additive manufacturing, is the process of making 3D solid objects from a digital file.[1] Using the digital information file, layers of the chosen material are built up using a 3D printer until the object has been completed. Current 3D printers use various types of material, including plastic, glass, and metals. Technology advancements have allowed the printing of more complex objects using new materials, including organic material for the health care industry.

As airport operators consider how to best incorporate 3D printing into their operations, they should start by identifying the required skill sets and operational needs of the use cases that they are exploring. They should also consider 3D printing’s impact on airport shipping revenue; as 3D printing begins to provide more complex product components at the place of need, it may begin to reduce the need for larger-scale shipping operations. Airports will need to keep tabs on the external market to begin to design plans that account for changes in air shipping demand.

This Publication includes 3D printing technology due to the potential benefits and business plan changes that it may bring. While it is still further out in development, 3D printing may begin to impact areas like maintenance and operations in the airport environment. This technology is placed in the Basic Transformation Tier of this Publication due to research evidence suggesting a lower level of future airport impact.


Until real-world deployments begin, airport operators will likely not understand the full impact that 3D printing deployments will have on their airport environment. This article outlines many of the high-profile impacts that airport operators may expect from 3D printing as its usage increases. Following the impact list, two notable impacts are detailed further below.



  • Additional equipment not currently in the airport organization’s budgets
  • Impacts on cargo industry revenue
  • Operational expense savings in replacement part and construction costs
  • Cost to procure 3D-printable design files

Technical/Infrastructure Readiness

  • 3D modeling software availability within the airport organization
  • 3D printer material requirements based on planned use by the organization

Process/Skill Set Changes

  • Incorporation of 3D printing into maintenance processes
  • Reduction in lead times for 3D-printable equipment
  • Reduction in spare part requirements

Passenger Experience/Passenger Process

  • Reduction in downtime of airport facilities due to abbreviated construction and maintenance processes, streamlining the customer experience


  • Enhanced security monitoring required to detect 3D-printed home weaponry made from new materials

Airport Design/Construction

  • Designing equipment that can be replaced through 3D-printed components

Revenue/Business Model

  • N/A


  • Ownership rights of 3D-printing files
  • Contract adjustments to facilitate in-house 3D-printed object support

Featured Impacts

Operational expense savings in replacement part and construction costs: 3D printing can enable more flexibility when addressing maintenance and repair issues across the airport property, reducing storage and shipping costs along with required storage space. This allows airports to reallocate resources in new areas.

Incorporation of 3D printing into maintenance processes: Airport maintenance and repair processes likely do not account for the use of 3D-printable solutions. Processes would need to be retooled to review solutions to problems with 3D printing in mind, and staff with knowledge of 3D printing would need to be involved in resolving maintenance issues. Further, airports will need to consider the storage of 3D-printing files in a database for necessary equipment across the airport property.


To better understand 3D-printing technology, airport operators should gain a better understanding of its specific attributes. This article explores the operating factors of 3D printing and some of its usage characteristics. Understanding these attributes will help airport operators determine applicable use cases for 3D printing and how their organization can support potential solutions.

Elimination of Current Processes

3D-printing solutions offer airport organizations new options to handle replacement parts and general repairs. For example, the ability to manufacture specialty parts on-site and install them immediately eliminates the need to contact the vendor and have parts shipped. This enables airport organizations to lower the order lead time for certain types of equipment, reduce the number of parts that need to be kept on hand, and get airport facilities back to operating conditions quicker. Further, the reduction in supply chain complexity allows the airport to reduce the length of its processes.

Changes to Business Model

3D printing’s impact on the supply chain has the potential to alter the airport’s role in the air shipment industry. As the quality of 3D-printed objects improves, users looking to save costs on shipping may elect to 3D print goods rather than have them shipped. This potential reduction in revenue from air cargo services may start to hit airport organizations. Airport organizations may need to diversify away from the shipping industry as the trajectory starts to change.

Learning Curve

Airport organizations looking to incorporate 3D-printing solutions will need to improve relevant employee skill sets not currently used in the airport industry and hire staff who can develop objects for 3D printing and manage the equipment. To provide clarity to business cases for this technology, airport operators should gain a deeper level of understanding about how 3D-printing solutions will benefit the organization.

Use Cases/Business Effect

With every new or emerging technology, there are two basic questions an airport operator asks: “how can my airport use this?” and “how does this affect my business, even if my airport doesn’t wish to use it for our own benefit?” This article provides answers to both of these questions, addressing the airport uses cases and business effect of 3D-printing technology.

Use Cases

As 3D-printing technologies advance to a point of being cost-effective with widespread adoption, potential use cases become available for airport operators to incorporate into their organizations.

Maintenance Part Manufacturing*

Airport maintenance staff can use internally operated 3D printers to print needed equipment parts in real time. This can have wide-reaching effects on how current maintenance programs work. Maintenance departments only need to maintain the files needed to support a 3D object, limiting the need to purchase, store, or order spare parts. Engineering departments may even be able to design solutions immediately as an issue arises, limiting downtime and saving on repair costs.

*Use of 3D-printed equipment may be subject to regulatory agency approval and compliance with procurement requirements.

Building Construction

Airport properties are undergoing constant construction projects to accommodate the growing number of passenger and operational needs. 3D-printing technology can be used to expedite portions of that process. Incorporating 3D-printing solutions into the construction process can improve lead times, reduce construction costs, and decrease airport facility downtime.

Business Effect

Whether or not an airport chooses to employ 3D printing for its own benefit, 3D-printing deployments that are not directly initiated/driven by the airport organization may have an effect on aspects of the airport’s operations.

Reductions in Air Cargo Shipments

Air cargo could potentially be impacted as more businesses and consumers adapt to printing needed objects internally. This could, in turn, impact airport operations and resources previously devoted to air cargo that need to be reallocated.

Tiered Approach

Airport operators interested in new or emerging technologies, such as 3D printing, will differ in their levels of risk tolerance. Some organizations are comfortable at the forefront of technology and have the resources to support innovation. Other organizations are interested in simply exploring how they can use 3D printing within their limited resources.

This article takes a tiered approach to 3D-printing technology, providing use cases that are separated by the following innovation tiers: Reactive, Strategic, and Innovative.


Leveraging 3D-Printing Suppliers

 Airport organizations unwilling to invest in 3D-printing solutions internally can opt to focus on suppliers who incorporate 3D printing into their organizations. These suppliers can house and operate the 3D-printing equipment and manufacture objects on demand as needed by the airport organizations. Using suppliers who focus on this just-in-time production method can reduce the need for equipment storage on the airport property, lowering cost and order time in comparison with traditional part-procurement processes.


In-House 3D-Printed Replacement Parts

Airport maintenance teams using 3D-printing equipment can print replacement parts on demand for simple products. This can reduce the order time and shipping costs associated with replacement parts while also reducing the need to keep large stocks of products on hand. 3D printer–compatible design files can be stored and accessed to print parts as the need arises. Vehicle parts, millwork, and other commonly damaged or consumed items are great candidates for 3D printing.


3D-Printed Construction

Construction is a routine part of most airport operations. The use of 3D printing in the construction process can drastically cut down on construction times, cost, and downtime of airport facilities. The construction process will need to be altered to accommodate an approach that best uses the benefits of 3D-printing equipment.

Industry Status

Exploring 3D-printing technology deployments in both aviation and non-aviation industries can provide airport operators with a better understanding of the technology as a whole. This article outlines the current state of 3D-printing technology from both perspectives.

Aviation Industry

Maintenance Equipment Printing

Airport operators can print equipment as needed for airport use. This can cut down on lead time for maintenance projects and return assets back to operational levels quickly.[2]

Non-aviation Industry

Rapid Product Development

Manufacturers are using 3D-printing technologies to quickly print needed objects. An example includes the use of 3D-printer solutions to quickly print medical face masks when supplies ran low during the COVID-19 pandemic.[3]

Device Prototyping

Various industries, like the medical and consumer device industries, are using 3D-printing solutions to manufacture prototype objects. This greatly cuts down on the product development process, reducing research and development costs for companies. These reduced costs can lead to more experimentation and more time refining the quality of early-stage products.[4]

3D-Building Construction

Specialty equipment has been used to 3D-print living structures, reducing cost and construction time to provide affordable housing to those in rural and low-income areas.

Technology Interaction

Technology solutions may enable or be supported by other types of technologies. In some cases, the advancement of one technology may be vital to the effective use of another. However, unlike many of the other technologies in this Publication, 3D-printing technology does not seem to impact other technologies. As research continues, this section will be updated with new information.

Technology Barriers

As with some other technologies noted in this Publication, there are market forces or obstacles in development that present barriers to the deployment and widespread adoption of 3D-printing technology. Keeping abreast of these barriers can help airport operators know when to expect to see wider use of this technology in the public and when they should look to reassess it for their own use. This article outlines the current state of 3D-printing technology barriers.

Use of Multiple Printing Materials and More Sophisticated Operations

While they are able to print a range of novel products, 3D printers must undergo further development before they are able to print more sophisticated pieces of equipment. The use of new materials and support for more advanced designs will begin to grow the market design for 3D printers.

Equipment Cost

Most 3D printers and materials are expensive for the general consumer. This expense makes the business case for these technologies more difficult to justify.

Available 3D-Printing Files

More product suppliers will need to provide the printing information digitally to users who have access to the devices. A network through which object designs can be easily gathered is needed for users to print objects they would like on-site.

Organization Skill Sets

Businesses require staff with the skill sets to effectively design and print equipment using 3D printers. Without staff to operate the machines in-house, it becomes difficult to identify a return on investment for many of the 3D-printing business use cases.