Paris Air Show: the printed plane nears take off

A350 Image copyright Airbus
Image caption The Airbus A350 has a number of 3D printed parts

The new Airbus A350 XWB that is flying daily displays at the Paris Air Show can claim several engineering firsts.

One of these is that it has more 3D printed components than any other aircraft, about 1,000 on a plane that has only just gone into service.

Meanwhile, Raytheon has 3D parts on its missiles, while makers of drones are increasingly using them. And United Launch Alliance - a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing - has the parts on the rockets it sends into space.

No longer is 3D a novelty manufacturing process. It's going mainstream, underlined by the number of 3D-related firms at the Paris show and conference briefings being held on the sidelines.

And it has the potential to transform the aerospace industry's global supply chain and cost structure, producing parts faster, and which are lighter and mean less waste. It may also mean companies bringing more production back in-house.

The 3D components on the A350 XWB are mostly widgets and brackets, formed by fusing layer upon layer of resins in machines that replicate computer-generated 3D models. (Metals and even glass can also be used).

So, we're talking about small routine parts here, rather than large structures - at the moment.

But don't dismiss the significance that 3D printing is playing, says Ian Risk, Airbus Group's head of innovations in the UK, where the aerospace giant makes aircraft wings.

Image copyright SpaceX
Image caption The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket has a 3D-printed main oxidiser valve in one of its engines.

"These components contribute a huge amount to the manufacturing process. Often, it's the fiddly parts that create delays in production," he said.

The size of the component being made is limited by the size of the printing machine.

Mr Risk doubts there will ever be a machine big enough to turn out a whole airframe. "But we are looking at wider applications," he said. "The scale of what we do will increase."

On-demand supply

3D printing's biggest supporters talk of a future world in which machines will be sited at key locations across the globe, churning out components when needed - not stored in a factory somewhere awaiting delivery to factories.

Say, for example, an A380 super-jumbo is flying into Singapore and needs a new part. In our digitally connected world, a machine could be programmed to start printing even before the aircraft lands.

It sounds good in theory, and Mr Risk says that "agile manufacturing" will certainly reshape the industry's global supply chain and reduce lead times.

But there are plenty of hurdles, especially the issue of transmitting secure data across the world, he said.

While the holy grail of on-demand supply may be a little way off, John Schmidt, US-based managing director of aerospace and defence at consultancy Accenture, says printing is reducing lead times from months to weeks.

He says it's too far early to call the end of traditional manufacturing - machining, casting and injection moulding. But the technology and scale of 3D printing will inevitably improve, so it's only a matter of time before a tipping point is reached.

'First time, right time'

3D parts reduce weight on aircraft, and so improve fuel efficiency, he says. And making one 3D part often replaces the need to combine several smaller parts, reducing the need to carry inventory.

Part of a cooling system used by rocket maker ULA now uses 16 parts, where before it was 140. ULA also says it has cut costs on its latest Atlas rocket by $1m using 3D.

Mr Schmidt added: "3D is also ideal for industries with short production runs - like aerospace - as it maximises the cost advantages of smaller production runs." It also reduces waste, as the component is built up rather than cut from a block of material.

Image copyright ULA
Image caption ULA's Atlas rocket uses 3D-printed thermoplastic parts

He predicts that one of the most significant impacts could be on aircraft design, especially as 3D offers the promise to produce more complex shapes. "It opens options to be innovative in ways that do not exist now; to build something the first time and at the right time," he said.

And wouldn't that be good news for plane makers, whose big industrial projects are frequently plagued by production delays and cost-overruns.

Sky's the limit

The US-Israeli company Stratasys makes 3D machines and supplies materials and composites used to build components.

Director Scott Sevcik predicts that within 10 years, about 40-50% of aircraft components will use printed materials. It's about 4% now. In 20 years, the vast majority of parts will have some form of 3D printed contribution.

The thermoplastic material that Stratasys supplied for ULA's rockets can operate in extreme heat and cold, as well as under intense vibration and speed. As with 3D components used in civil aircraft, they have to go through rigorous regulatory approval.

Mr Sevcik said the ULA parts are for interior use, but that if tests on Stratasys' plastic, called Ultem, go to plan then 3D parts could be used on the exterior of unmanned rockets with a couple of years.

"It is very hard now to think of anything that won't be printable at some point in the future," he said, given advances in technology and material science.

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