Airbus Group is using 3D German printers to produce series components and prototype parts in an endeavor to deliver Airbus Helicopter parts that are lighter and cheaper than those currently available. The company is also promoting the use of 3D printing to improve efficiency of assembly lines.
“3D printing is the dream of any engineer,” says Rainer Rauh, global innovation manager of the Airbus Group, adding that from simply having a good idea, you can use the 3D printer to print overnight and have a new part ready the following day.
The first “flight-qualified” 3D-printed part from Airbus Defence and Space is a bracket made from a titanium alloy that is on board the French-made Atlantic Bird 7 telecoms satellite. There is also a 3D-printed air intake on board Airbus Military’s tactical Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Atlante.
Recently the company made a number of prototype Airbus Helicopter parts using a large-format German RapRap X400 3D printer. These parts included shafts, gears, levers and windshield wipers, as well as bearings, sleeves and threads, all of which are functional prototypes that can be used to test the interaction of different components. As an example, Airbus Helicopter windshield wipers are put through a myriad of serviceability and functionality tests, as well as safety tests. They are also tested to see how easy they are to install and to assess future manufacturing processes.
Additionally, Airbus Helicopters, together with Autodesk (specialists in making software for engineering, construction, manufacturing and other industries), recently unveiled what is believed to be the largest metal airplane component ever made with a 3D printer. An airplane partition, it was created from Scalmalloy, the Airbus Group’s second-generation high-strength aluminum-magnesium-scandium alloy, using the same X400 3D printer.
The company is currently working on a camera mount extension prototype that will be able to assist military and police forces follow movement on the ground more effectively. The X400 is being used for this too.
3D printing, also known as additive layer manufacturing or ALM builds parts from the inside out, in layers. Materials used include concrete, glass and high-grade titanium alloys. Each layer is very thin (about 0.1 mm), but eventually the process results in an object that is solid and that can be very complex in shape. Computer-generated designs are used for 3D printing, and laser beams or electrons are used to model materials according to the designs. Because this form of production enables engineers to create topologically optimized natural shapes that could never be produced from solid blocks of material, Airbus Helicopter parts produced this way will ultimately be considerably less costly than the conventional parts that are currently produced. The process is also less wasteful, with only an estimated 5 percent of waste material produced from the 3D printing process.
Jörg Sander, a specialist in 3D printing for electronic equipment at Airbus Defence and Space, likens the shift to ALM to the change from handwritten books to those that are printed.
The shift to ALM is part of the Airbus strategy to optimize the company’s industrial system by 2020.
Of course cheaper Airbus Helicopter parts will ultimately impact on part service and repair for Airbus Helicopters. In the meantime US-based Prime Industries continues to source and supply quality aircraft components and parts for clients all over the world.