When it comes to 3D printing in the aerospace industry, few companies are more serious about the technology than Airbus. The company was ahead of others in incorporating 3D printing technology into its aircraft; all the way back in 2015, it had already placed more than 1,000 3D printed parts into its A350 XWB aircraft, and last year it introduced its first 3D printed primary flight control hydraulic component. A while ago, Airbus even filed a patent for a 3D printing process that could print entire airplanes.
With all of these 3D printed parts on Airbus airplanes, you would think that passengers would be used to seeing them by now – but that’s not the case. Believe it or not, all of those 1,000-plus 3D printed parts on the A350 XWB are hidden from passengers, as are all of the 3D printed parts on the company’s other aircraft. It’s only now that Airbus is introducing the first 3D printed component to be visible to passengers – a 3D printed spacer panel installed on an Airbus A320 aircraft operated by Finnair.
When an airline updates its cabin layout, gaps are often created between new and existing components. When that happens, the airline needs to add panels that will fill those gaps. Traditionally, these plastic parts would be made using injection molding, but this is a complex process, especially because of the specialized nature of many of the components and the limited number needed for a typical cabin retrofit. It takes valuable time that the airline would prefer be used gathering revenue by taking passengers in the air.
Using 3D printing allows for small batches of parts to be made more easily and quickly, and also less expensively. The parts are as strong as those made with traditional molding methods, and they can also be made to be lighter weight, which is valuable for airliners that rely on being as lightweight as possible to save costs.
The spacer panels are not the first 3D printed components to be visible to aircraft passengers, but they’re the first for Airbus – until now, none of the airliners’ 3D printed components had been deemed aesthetically pleasing enough to be seen by passengers. The panels were 3D printed by Materialise, which has 3D printed many of Airbus’ components, and are being used to fill end-gaps in a row of overhead storage compartments.
“We can handle incredibly tight lead times, but the foundations for that lie in a carefully honed quality management system,” said Materialise Quality Manager Geert Appeltans. “The spacer panels produced for Airbus are more than 3D prints, they’re the output of an entire quality system.”
The use of 3D printing allowed Airbus and Materialise to create bio-inspired panels that are 15% lighter than they would have been if they had been made using traditional methods of production. 3D printing also allowed for the creation of complex internal support structures, such as lattices inside the panels, without incurring additional production costs.
The 3D printed panels were painted using Airbus’ flame retardant paint, and they then successfully met all Airbus Cabin Trim and Finish checks. The panels aren’t flashy or even that noticeable – indeed, most passengers probably will have no idea that they’re looking at 3D printed components. That’s partially the point – that 3D printed components can now be made to integrate so smoothly into a cabin setting that they won’t stick out. These may be the first 3D printed cabin components to be visible to passengers, but they almost certainly won’t be the last.
“Our goal at Materialise is to be a trusted and reliable supplier in additive manufacturing to Airbus. We do this by innovating together in design and production processes with our software and know-how of AM, but also by seamlessly integrating Airbus’s own way of working,” said Edouard de Mahieu, Project Manager at Materialise. “We think of this project as a great example of Certified Additive Manufacturing. It demonstrates how Materialise provides an end-to-end process that goes beyond the 3D print. It’s about the strict quality process and incorporating every detail of the requirements from design to finishing.”
[Images provided by Materialise]