3D printing looks set to transform the aircraft manufacturing business and industry giant Airbus is already piloting the technology to new heights.
We’re not just talking here about the use of 3D printers to create prototypes during the design phase, but also about creating finished parts for use in production. And it’s not a case of 3D printing parts from plastics and resins, but in metals as well.
Take, for example, the wide body A350 XWB: this aircraft uses some 2,700 plastic parts created using 3D printing and Airbus is working with regulatory body, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to qualify titanium components produced on 3D printers specifically designed to print in metals. As of last month, Airbus had received 810 orders for A350s, from 43 customers worldwide.
Behind much of the action at Airbus is APWorks, a wholly owned subsidiary dedicated to additive manufacturing (AM). This term is used because 3D printers lay down layer after layer of a given material to create an object, as opposed to the ‘subtractive’ business of cutting, drilling and hammering material away.
APWorks runs a handful of 3D printers in the Airbus manufacturing hall at Ottobrunn, near Munich, including the world’s first MetalFAB1 printer from Dutch 3D printing company Additive Industries. It also collaborated with the Airbus Innovations unit to create Scalmalloy, a unique and patented aluminium/magnesium/scandium alloy powder for creating high-strength parts on 3D printers.
Now, APWorks is working with SAP in what the software company calls a ‘co-innovation agreement’ on a suite of software designed to help other discrete manufacturers integrate 3D printing into their own production processes.
Internally at SAP, this software is provisionally referred to as SAP On-Demand Manufacturing Suite, although it may have a different name when it’s launched in the first quarter of 2017, says Gil Perez, general manager of connected vehicles and IoT security at SAP. It will primarily be aimed at discrete manufacturers from the aerospace and defence, automotive and medical device markets:
We’ve been looking at 3D printing for about four years already and we’d decided again and again not to engage on 3D printing because we thought that the technology and the maturity of the market was not there yet. But as new companies have entered the 3D printing arena, including HP for example, and as we’ve seen a lot more interest from customers in including 3D printing in their manufacturing, rather than just using it for prototypes, we decided last year it was time for SAP to help accelerate this.
APWorks has much to offer SAP in this respect, because of its proven AM expertise, its track record in materials development (such as Scalmalloy) and the range of services it offers to third parties, according to Tobias Bretschi, technical sales manager at APWorks.
As well as working to further the use of 3D printing internally at Airbus, he explains, APWorks also helps other companies - including premium sportscar manufacturers and robotics specialists - to optimize their own designs for 3D printing, to train their engineers to use the technology and to walk them through the process of testing and qualifying 3D-printed components to the satisfaction of regulators and safety bodies.
That kind of work demands a good degree of collaboration, which is where SAP comes in, he says.
When we’re working with new customers, there are lots of communications. We need to exchange CAD [computer-aided design] files and specification documents with them. We need to track parts through the qualification process. And we want to do so in a way that means customers can export all the relevant data created in the process of working with us into their own SAP systems. We wanted to work with SAP, because we believe the company can provide a cloud-based infrastructure that makes this kind of communication much more efficient.
But SAP’s vision for On-Demand Manufacturing Suite goes further than simple document sharing and collaboration, says Perez. Most manufacturers are pretty accustomed to introducing new machines of all kinds into their production lines and integrating them with their manufacturing software, he says:
But when you start thinking about additive manufacturing, you’re starting to think of creating products in whole new ways. It really impacts on the way you view the product design cycle from beginning to end, so that new machine needs to integrate with back-end manufacturing software in different ways.
There’ll be new supply chain issues to consider, for example, as new materials for 3D printing emerge. And there’ll be new reporting requirements among companies who want to understand which parts should be prioritized for 3D printing, not just from a technological point of view, but from the manufacturing and financial points of view, based on how many parts are already held in inventory, the cost of storing them, where they typically get used and in what quantities they are likely to be needed over a given period. In many cases, 3D printing will enable manufacturers to print parts only as and when they are needed - hence, ‘on demand’ - and lower their overall costs as a result.
At the same time, there will be important environmental gains to be had for the fuel-hungry aviation business, if additive manufacturing becomes a routine aspect of building an aircraft, according to Bretschi of APWorks. Put simply, 3D printing opens the doors to create components that weigh less - and a lighter aircraft consumes less fuel.
For example, Airbus has been working for a couple of years on 3D printing a ‘bionic’ partition to separate the galley of an aircraft from the cabin. This is already being included on test flights this year, he says. At 30 kilos, the partition weighs 45 percent less than current designs, and when applied to the entire cabin and to the current backlog of A320 planes, Airbus estimates that the new design approach could save up to 464,000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions per year - so there’s much to be gained in exploring where AM could and should be used and managing its integration into wider manufacturing processes accordingly.