Airbus puts its faith in 3D printed parts

Airbus, in conjunction with tier 1 supplier GKN Aerospace, is increasingly exploring the possibilities of using additive manufacturing (AM) to produce parts for its jetliners.

The company's A350 XWB aircraft already features a variety of 3D printed metal brackets (pictured), where the material and structural properties have been tested and validated.

The AM processes focus around the use of different metals and include research into selective laser sintering (SLS) and selective laser melting (SLM). AM opens several attractive opportunities, including the ability to manufacture extremely complex geometry that would either be uneconomical to produce or simply not technically feasible.

In addition, the ability to produce near net shape of high value medium sized titanium parts that need much less machining to finish, delivers a very attractive and all important buy-to-fly ratio of the material used.

Parts produced using AM are beginning to appear on a range of Airbus aircraft including the next-generation A350 XWB and the in-service A300/A310 family. The results are lighter parts, shorter lead times, with less material used during production. Although the cost is at the moment thought to be higher, GKN has recently opened four additive manufacturing research centres to help reduce costs and speed up the deposition of material.

"We are on the cusp of a step-change in weight reduction and efficiency, producing aircraft parts which weight 30 to 55% less, while reducing raw material used by 90%," says Peter Sander, an engineer at the Airbus Innovation Cell. "This game changing technology also decreases total energy used in production by up to 90% compared to traditional methods."

Justin Cunningham

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