Components designed by computer and produced on a 3D printer are becoming more commonplace.
The aviation industry is leading the way. In the Airbus facilities in Hamburg, 3D laser printers are being used to print out metal parts for a whole range of Airbus aircraft that are lighter, stronger and substantially cheaper. Several hundred of these parts fit onto the Airbus A350 XWB and, thanks to 3D printing, they took 70 percent less time to make, while the manufacturing cost plunged by 80 percent.
Peter Sander, Manager of Emerging Technologies and Concepts at Airbus outlined some of the benefits of 3D printing.
“This is a very interesting part because, normally, this is part of a fuel system – it’s two pipes in one – and it’s normally welded out of ten parts,” he explained. “So, with 3D printing we have the chance to integrate the bracket of the pipe – two pipes in one – and print it in one shot. So, in this case we have weight reduction, but, of course, the most interesting thing is that we have a cost reduction down to 30 percent.”
3D printing consists of producing a three-dimensional object from a digital file, which has been created by specialised engineers. Then 3D printers transform the files into real mechanical parts, using powder from plastic and different metals including titanium and steel.
Curtis Carson, Head of Systems Integration at Airbus explained why the new technology would be useful for airlines.
“For the airlines, the biggest benefit I would say today is the weight we reduce from the aircraft,” he said. “With reducing the weight, we are not only saving costs on our side, but we are also introducing for them a way to improve their fuel burn, save money on their fuel, improve their revenue, and operate the aircraft more efficiently.”
The first commercial flights using 3D-printed metal parts are expected to be in operation by 2016, with mass production by 2018. Some 30 tonnes of metallic parts are expected to be printed each month.