Airplane Manufacturers Surge Ahead with 3D Printing

3D-printing technology used by Airbus is beginning to shape the future of aircraft component manufacture for its jetliners

Those who follow developments in the 3D printing world know that aircraft manufacturing is one arena where the technology has really taken off, quite literally.

Airbus has been an early adopter of advanced manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing, and now it’s moving beyond prototypes to components robust enough to be used in real planes.

Airbus has already produced a variety of fully tested and validated plastic and metal brackets for its next-generation A350 XWB, and 3D printed parts are also being used on its cornerstone A300/A310 planes.

Earlier this month, the first “printed” component—a small plastic crew seat panel—flew on an Airbus customer jetliner: an A310 operated by Canada’s Air Transat.

The advantages of using 3D printing parts for airplanes are myriad. The process results in lighter parts, with shorter lead times, fewer materials used during production, and a significant reduction in the manufacturing process’ environmental footprint.

“We are on the cusp of a step-change in weight reduction and efficiency – producing aircraft parts which weight 30 to 55 percent less, while reducing raw material used by 90 percent,” says Airbus spokesperson Peter Sander.

“This game-changing technology also decreases total energy used in production by up to 90 percent compared to traditional methods.”

Airbus is also considering the possibility of using 3D printing as a spare-part solutions, which could be ideal for producing cost-effective out-of-production aircraft parts on-demand.

According to Sander, the lead time for such a part can be as little as one day, if the component is based on an existing design, while redesigned parts can be produced in less than two weeks – something that Sander calls “a dream come true.”

Replacing old or broken airplane bits with 3D printed parts on an as-needed basis has obvious benefits for both aircraft manufacturers and their customers.

Late last year, the first British fighter jet to contain 3D printed metal components was flown from an airfield in Lancashire, England. BAE Systems, maker of the Tornado jet, said its engineers are using 3D technology to design and produce parts that could potentially cut the Royal Air Force’s maintenance and service bill by almost $2 million over the next four years.

For military aircraft in particular the ability to potentially print on-demand anywhere anytime—think remote training missions or warzones—has to be an attractive, if somewhat distant, prospect.

In the near future we may even see aircraft retro-fitted with freshly designed and updated parts, a novel and inexpensive way to extend a fleet’s lifecycle.

Airbus is clearly reaping the rewards of its early foray into advanced manufacturing as well as continuing partnerships with companies like ESO, a 3D printer maker.

The company recently conducted a sustainability study with ESO comparing the advantages and disadvantages of direct metal laser sintering (DMLS) and rapid investment casting.

The study, part of broader cradle-to-cradle research into aerospace parts, processes, and end-of-life strategies, looked at steel casting and laser sintering from titanium for making a standardized metal Airbus A320 nacelle bracket design.

Over the lifecycle of the DMLS-produced part, carbon dioxide production was reduced by almost 40 percent while raw material consumption was reduced 25 percent. Compelling findings indeed.

Which industries do you think will benefit most from advanced manufacturing technologies?

Photo courtesy of Airbus

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