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3D printing technology appears well situated to generate significant efficiencies in the aircraft technology supply chain, in particular within the aftermarket business relating to parts that may be out of stock or discontinued. Mario Pierobon finds out more

During the past five years, multiple players in the aircraft technology industry have been conducting research and development to come up with 3D printing technology solutions. In that time they have actually produced physical aircraft components suitable for the efficiency, reliability and safety of aircraft operations.


The technology, however, is still at an early stage of development; significant efforts are needed for certification, and to make it as acceptable to oversight authorities as more conventional technologies with proven reliability. Early applications of 3D printing appear to have delivered worthwhile efficiencies and it can be expected that, even by means of coordinated industry efforts, 3D printing will eventually make its way in the aftermarket as a suitable technology.


How 3D printing works

Additive manufacturing is the technical term which defines a number of technologies whereby a shape is produced through adding material, as opposed to traditional techniques which subtract material from a billet or pre-form. 3D printing is commonly used as directly interchangeable with additive manufacturing; however, it originally referred to a specific process only.


Using 3D printing for after sales is part of Airbus Group’s 3D printing vision, targeting both civil and military aircraft, says Mareike Boeger, Head of Additive Manufacturing at Satair Group, an Airbus subsidiary. 3D printing is the process of building three-dimensional objects layer by layer from a digital model. “The principal of printing layer by layer is maintained with all processes for both plastic and metal printing. Either material is dispensed through a nozzle, or material powder is melted by a laser or electron beam. In comparison, traditional ‘subtractive manufacturing’ cuts l away from a solid piece of material (for example, metal machining) to create an object,” says Boeger.


What 3D printing provides

In relation to what 3D printing offers when compared to more traditional technologies, Boeger believes that benefits can be derived in multiple key areas. “3D printing enables completely new shapes and designs to be manufactured which were previously not possible. Therefore, the design of future aircraft will be less limited by manufacturing technologies. In some cases it also allows a reduction in the manufacturing cost and lead time, since some parts in the aerospace industry have a large buy-to-fly ratio (material bought vs. material that remains on the final component) – this results in a high proportion of the material being removed during manufacture,” says Boeger.


The main benefits of 3D printing for customer airlines include shorter lead-times, efficient production of small batches, no tooling costs, possible redesign and weight reduction, and eco-efficiency (in terms of use of just the right amount of material required to form the part). “In addition, ‘out-of-production’ is a major opportunity for 3D printing in the spare parts business, offering a new solution for ensuring the availability of parts. Active aircraft programmes will also benefit from the technology,” Boeger explains.


One airline keen to look at the benefits of 3D printing technologies is easyJet. It is currently in exploratory discussions with several 3D printing firms, including Airline Services Limited and SNECMA, to see how the airline could make use of 3D printing. According to Ian Davies, Head of Engineering at easyJet, the goal for the British carrier is to reduce waste in the manufacturing cycle, as well as to use innovatively designed parts that can only be manufactured by printing. “As we are investigating and exploring this area it will be discussed on a case-by-case basis with our various current and future suppliers” says Davies.


“We would of course continue to work with our suppliers across the board, but we are exploring 3D printing as a possibility to aid manufacturing and, in some instances, speed up the manufacturing process. 3D printing technology has advanced considerably over the past five years, and we expect this to continue. It is therefore difficult to predict timelines, but it is a fast moving industry with significant investment from our major partners” says Davies.


According to Boeger, in today’s spare parts business the demand for shorter lead-times, higher parts availability and rapid global response continues to grow. “So imagine how customers’ logistics and inventory management could be optimised with parts produced on demand. Our growing 3D printing scope spans three categories, specifically: the replacement of flying parts, such as those that are out-of-production; the replacement and optimisation of tools and ground support equipment; and fully customised parts and tools,” she says.


Best practices

With regard to background best practices in relation to operators’ training and the certification of machinery, Boeger notes that these are still in development as additive manufacturing matures across the aerospace industry. “Generally speaking, best practices look to maximise the reusability of the material in the print chamber, reduce variables akin to the printing process to ensure quality products are produced, and most importantly, leverage the advantages of 3D printing for new designs with suitable batch sizes. It is already known that 3D printing will not directly replace traditional technologies in every scenario, but when parts are designed for 3D printing the results can be extraordinary,” says Boeger.


A need for maturity

The relative ‘immaturity’ of the technology is, however, what is limiting its widespread adoption today. “The challenge, as with any new technology, is to establish enough data to support its safety, repeatability, airworthiness and, of course, its commercial viability. This data will take time to establish. Regulations are not preventing progress on adopting the technology; we will continue to prove to authorities the technology that can be applied safely,” says Boeger.


She stresses, however, that in aircraft maintenance the technology is very relevant: replacement parts, bespoke repair solutions and upgrades are all target areas. “As the technologies mature, more and more cases will become commercially viable. Regulations already restrict maintenance operations to authorised personnel and authorised methods only. This means that all maintenance must be carried out by an authorised person in an acceptable way. All maintenance work involving 3D printing will have to be proven and validated, as with traditional technologies,” says Boeger. >>

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