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Printing the future: Airbus expands its applications of the revolutionary additive layer manufacturing process

3 March 2014 Feature story

Innovative 3D-printing (additive layer manufacturing) technology used by Airbus is beginning to shape the future of aircraft component manufacture for its jetliners.

Parts produced with this method are beginning to appear on a range of the company’s aircraft – from the next-generation A350 XWB to in-service jetliners form the cornerstone A300/A310 Family. The 3D-printing 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 per cent less, while reducing raw material used by 90 per cent,” said Peter Sander of the Airbus. “This game-changing technology also decreases total energy used in production by up to 90 percent compared to traditional methods.”

For the A350 XWB aircraft, Airbus already has produced a variety of plastic and metal brackets, whose material and structural properties have been tested and validated, and are now incorporated on the company’s fleet of developmental aircraft.

Airbus is also working toward spare part solutions with this technology, which is ideal for producing cost-effective out-of-production aircraft spare parts on-demand. 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.

Sander said 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.

Additive layer manufacturing “grows” products from a fine base material powder – such as aluminum, titanium, stainless steel and plastics – by adding thin layers of material in incremental stages, which enables complex components to be produced directly from computer-aided design (CAD) information.

Sander explained the applications of 3D-printing technology in aircraft component manufacturing are just beginning to be realised.

“The aircraft of the future will have a “bionic” fuselage, composed of complex parts printed using additive layer manufacturing,” he concluded. “This dream will come true.”

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