3D Printing – Aircraft Production will be Revolutionized

Customized production anywhere at any time. What sounds like science fiction will soon become reality. How advanced the development already is can be witnessed when taking a closer look behind the curtains of the huge Airbus plant in Hamburg.

Display of a futuristic Airbus model based on 3D printing technology  /  source: Airbus
Display of a futuristic Airbus model based on 3D printing technology / source: Airbus

What has the future generation of aircraft to do with the ancient bird Archaeopteryx? A lot, says Peter Sander, responsible for Engineering Technologies and Future Concepts at plane maker Airbus. As proof he pulls a carcass-like structure out of the drawer which resembles the skeleton of the primitive bird. It’s of lightweight design made of polyamide, very transparent with its many holes, still robust and exceedingly resistant against extreme pressure. “This might give you an idea how the framework of next generation aircraft will possibly look like,” Peter states. A new series of bionic aircraft, designed like nature, seems to be emerging.

Jetliners constructed this way with many of their parts produced by 3D printers would weigh about 30 percent less compared to the present generation aircraft. It would be a quantum leap in technology, enabling substantial fuel savings and thus reductions of green house gas emissions once the Archaeopteryx-imitated planes are taking to the skies. 

Cabin bracket, made via 3D printing / source: Julian Caanitz
Cabin bracket, made via 3D printing / source: Julian Caanitz

The basics are there, notes the expert. “We’ve got the 3D printing technology that we have used to construct the different samples you can see here,” he says. It’s getting more developed and advanced day by day.

How this technology works is in short described in an overview published by ‘2014 3D Printer’. It reads: “3D printers use a variety of very different types of technologies, but they all share one core thing in common: they create a three dimensional object by building it layer by successive layer, until the entire object is complete. It’s much like printing in two dimensions on a sheet of paper, but with an added third dimension: UP. The Z-axis.” Produced can practically be anything, depending on the raw material in form of powder the printer is filled with. It isn’t too much to say that 3D printing will end the era of mass production and herald a new era of customized devices and appliances.  

Next industrial revolution
“Additive layer manufacturing” as this technology is correctly named, will revolutionize the entire industry and hence the production of aircraft as well. “If we had a large enough 3D printer, which is not on the market yet, we could build the entire hull of an Airbus A350 as one single piece,” Peter says.

That day will come, and it doesn’t seem to be too far, when huge printers capable of producing large objects ranging from aircraft fuselage to wings are obtainable, as Andrei Neboian, CEO of Vienna-based Xioneer Systems, predicts. His company specializes in 3D technology.

3D printed wing structure resembling the skeleton of birds  /  source: Julian Caanitz
3D printed wing structure resembling the skeleton of birds / source: Julian Caanitz

But even today, 3D printed aircraft components are already an integral part of the Airbus production program. As examples Peter mentions bionic cabin brackets made of titanium 6-4, fuel connectors or belt moulds that are fitted into the passenger seats of the A330 / A310 fleet Canadian leisure carrier Air Transat is operating.

Similar developments are happening at Boeing that is a step ahead of its European competitor in producing sophisticated plastic components, while Airbus is leading in printing devices consisting of tinplates, titanium and other metals, compares expert Sander.

The entire development allows predicting that the consequences for transports, including air freight, will be dramatic, once 3D printing becomes mature. Aircraft parts will be produced on demand, stocks become largely superfluous and production will be decentralized. However, this all doesn’t come easy. It will take the aircraft producers and their suppliers years of planning to modify production processes and train their many staff across a variety of functions from engineering to assembly to quality inspection. But the way has been paved.

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Heiner Siegmund

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