3D Aircraft Parts – is this the Production Method for the Future?

Printing aircraft parts!
Whoever thought of that daft idea? - this is what would have been said a year or two ago, but not anymore.


It seems that 3D Printing methods and their development are marching ahead. This is being seen in the case of normal printer users who have started to hook into this new and exciting method of production.

The 3D printing technology could be a game-changer. Here fan blades produced by a printer.
The 3D printing technology could be a game-changer. Here fan blades produced by a printer.

But is this something for the aircraft industry?
It’s hard to believe that a 3D printing method could be used successfully in “printing” parts for aircraft bodies or wings.
Fact is, that Airbus already have this new and innovative method of production in their sights for the new Airbus A350 passenger aircraft which is expected to end its test flight program towards the end of this year.

The advantages are shown through studies and development processes which have been completed these past years in laboratories and worksites worldwide.
They range from the parts presently being easily and speedily produced in small numbers as well as the fact that complex engineered parts seem to be produced easier by “print” rather than by putting them together manually or by machine.
The big advantage is that elements produced by this method weigh far less and are said to be easier to put into place.

This is however not one of the run of the mill printing methods.
That would be too easy!
The production is a method of  a “layer by layer” printing process whereby each thin layer rests upon the other and as final stage, are hardened by means of a special chemical sealing.
This is what the experts refer to as “Additive Layer Manufacturing.”
Plastic, ceramic and steel or titanium alloys are the main materials which go into this new production wonder.

There are three important so called print methods which are used.

  • "Fused Deposition Modeling” - or FDM in short. This is the method used for a layer by layer production of non-melting synthetic material.
  • “Selective Laser Melting” or SLM is the second method. This involves taking the material to be used in powder form and applying it in thin layers onto a basic board.
  • “Stereo-Lithographic” - shortened to STL or SLA is the third way of  producing whereby a piece is made up layer by layer by means of bombarding it with a so called direct pointing method.

 

Airbus intends manufacturing aircraft components or even larger airframe structures by use of 3D printing
Airbus intends manufacturing aircraft components or even larger airframe structures by use of 3D printing

All very complicated stuff for us laymen
However it seems to work and the aircraft manufacturing industry is setting its sights on this.
Less weight, cheaper production costs and it is said that material produced is unbreakable.
We’ve seen a similar type of development over the past years with carbon fiber parts for civil aircraft and whereby today’s modern jetliners have up between 30%-35% of carbon fiber on their “bodies,” - when in some cases, even more.

Generally speaking, 3D print methods could be used for almost all parts which are to be produced.
Prototypes, which normally are assembled by hand and more often than not need many different test models before being accepted, could be assembled, changed and finalized in a cheaper and faster way than now.

The aircraft industry is already doing it
BAE Systems, who develop aircraft systems, had already earlier this year produced parts through the 3D Print for the BAe 146 Regional Jet. This is an aircraft which is generally being mustered out of airline fleets, but it seems the tests were successful. They also did the same for the British military by “3D’ing” parts for the Tornado fighter aircraft.

On the civil aircraft side, Airbus seems to be pushing ahead with further studies and development of parts for the new A350 aircraft.
They also claim that they will produce lighter and more stable items with this system. Airbus maintains that up to 50% weight saving can be reached and believe it or not, a saving of up 90% on raw materials.
If all this works, then it won’t be long before we have enormous weight savings along with longer life materials for the aircraft industry.
Whether, when all of this is in use, aircraft manufacturing costs will come down remains to be seen.
One thing is sure: The more it takes a foothold, the less fuel will be needed.

In our view, a very interesting development which we intend to follow up on a regular basis.

John Mc Donagh

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