Airbus expands use of additive manufacturing

Airbus reports it is increasing use of 3-D printing to manufacture aircraft components and envisions a "bionic" fuselage in the future made with substantial help from additive manufacturing.

Airbus (Toulouse, France) reported on Feb. 14 that it expanding use of 3-D printing (additive layer manufacturing) technology to manufacture parts for the company's line of aircraft.

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 A300/A310 Family. The 3-D printing results in lighter parts, 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 Peter Sander of 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 said to be 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.

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