Researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne have been using laser metal-deposition technology to build and repair defence aircraft in a process that’s similar to 3D printing.
The team believes the technology could be “game-changing” for the aviation industry
“It’s basically a very high-tech welding process where we make or rebuild metal parts layer by layer,” said Professor Milan Brandt who is working on the project.
Boeing is investing heavily in developing its additive manufacturing capabilities ahead of an expected increase in the number of applications for 3D printed commercial aircraft parts.
The airframer already incorporates additive manufactured components into various aircraft cabin products, and expects the technology to provide airlines with a new way of customizing their interiors in the future.
Boeing last month signed a memorandum of understanding with Israeli software company Assembrix, which the manufacturer says will enable it to transmit additive manufacturing design information more securely.
As a somewhat nerdy by-product of working in an industry that looks at manufacturing the world differently, I too find myself often viewing the world through an additive lens. Perhaps the place I do this most is when traveling on an airplane where I tend to scour the cabin for places where additive manufacturing (AM) could be present someday soon.
The lifespan of an aircraft, typically between 20 and 30 years, makes maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) and retrofit, both big and necessary businesses. Think of every plane you’ve been on in the last few years that still featured a now-defunct charging socket from the 1980s – aircraft are not changing overnight to keep up-to-date with consumer expectations. However, Airbus’ Global Market Forecast projects that over the next 20 years the commercial aircraft upgrades services market will be worth 180 billion USD.
Achieving the highest quality standards is crucial in the aviation industry, where even the smallest of defects can have serious consequences. Besides the expansion of e-mobility, one of the most important recent developments in this field is the ability to produce components using additive manufacturing.
This is particularly beneficial in the aviation sector, where every single gram of weight saved can reduce flight operating costs. This is why toolcraft not only produces aircraft parts conventionally using CNC machining, but employs additive manufacturing processes as well. The company covers the complete process chain, from design and manufacture to quality assurance and testing. 3D metal printing has been an established manufacturing technique in its own right for many years, having successfully made the transition from being used for prototype production. Nadcap certification of the process is a further milestone in its development.
Aero engineers are turning to additive manufacturing for fast production and better product design. What will this mean for traditional aircraft?
At the 2016 Berlin air show in June, Airbus unveiled the first ever aircraft to be made using 3D printing. With a name derived from the phrase ‘Testing High-tech Objectives in Reality’, Thor weighs in at just 21kg and measures less than four metres in length. To observers, it resembles a large model aeroplane and was easily dwarfed by the other aircraft on show. But Airbus sees it as a testbed for a radical change in the way aircraft are built. Whereas traditional production methods such as milling involve manipulating a solid block of material, additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, ‘grows’ products by building up materials layer by layer. Taking this incremental approach, rather than using a solid block of material, allows for the creation of products with incredibly complex structures that would be very difficult to achieve, or in some cases impossible, using traditional methods.
Thor is not the only example of Airbus’s recent 3D-printed innovations – the company has also used 3D printing to attempt to replicate structures found in nature, and so create parts that are stronger yet lighter than is possible with traditional machining and assembly. “Nature has developed a lot of different design methods,” says Peter Sander, head of emerging technologies and concepts at Airbus.
According to Peter Sander, industrial 3D printing is now allowing aviation companies to take their design principles from nature – a phenomenally untapped source, but the most efficient blueprint of all.
Anyone who has been paying attention in technology has probably at least heard of 3D printing – little models, design accessories and even food are all possible. But since the early 2010s industrial design has become a lot more cost-effective with 3D printing. Peter Sander of Airbus tells Techworld that it is revolutionising aviation design.
On the way in to meeting Sander, who is in charge of emerging technologies and concepts at Airbus Germany, a ‘Beluga’ plane carrying Airbus parts to another facility scoots along and takes off from the sprawling factory’s built-in runway.