3D Printing

Decarbonisation meets digitalisation

Aviation history was made on 20 June 2014 when the first 3D-printed metal part, a humble titanium bracket, took to the skies on board a commercial jetliner. Since this first flight on an Airbus test aircraft, the technology has lived up to its potential.

The holy grail of aerospace

But why is 3D printing so important? Weight reduction is the holy grail of aerospace engineering: Every kilogram saved prevents 25 tons of COemissions during the lifespan of an aircraft. Parts produced by additive layer manufacturing (ALM), also known as 3D printing, weigh up to 55 per cent less while reducing raw material used by up to 90 per cent. Decarbonisation is the reason why the aerospace industry and Airbus are leading the charge in 3D printing.

The potential for weight reduction is enormous, as our designers can now emulate nature’s most efficient building plans. Moreover, we don’t have to wait years until the next generation of aircraft is developed. Rather, the technology enables us to replace a part on an existing aircraft model with a lighter 3D-printed version.  

An essential technology for digitalisation

In addition to its potential for decarbonisation, 3D printing is an essential technology for the digitalisation of industry. One of the advantages is that new parts can be virtually designed, printed on site and then tested – all in a very short timespan.

Following this innovative approach, pioneering Airbus engineers made an entire small-sized pilotless aircraft using 3D printing. Airbus is using this project – known as THOR – as a testbed for futuristic aircraft technologies: from 3D printed structural parts to advanced aerodynamics and even artificial intelligence.

3D enters serial production

3D technology is now entering the production process. In September 2017, following thorough testing and EASA approval, the first titanium 3D-printed part was installed on a serial production aircraft. This is the first step towards installing additional and more complex 3D-printed parts on Airbus production aircraft, for which they have to meet the highest safety and quality standards.

Since 3D printing can be cheaper, faster and closer to markets than conventional manufacturing, the technology could help bring about a renaissance of manufacturing in the EU.

The progress made by the aerospace industry highlights the technology’s potential for manufacturing in the EU. With one caveat: Assuming that Europe can quickly build on its technological leadership in this exciting new area. 


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