3D printed airplane parts

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By: Joe Forshaw

3D printing is moving into the mainstream and changing the way we manufacture our goods. In South Africa, there have been significant developments in the 3D printing industry and one of the world’s most well-known aircraft brands is now getting involved to provide increased backing for some radical ideas.

3D printing is different from 3D technology in a cinema or research environment as the process actually produces a three dimensional object rather than just an image that appears three dimensional.

Critics of this type of technology (also called additive manufacturing) claim that as 3D printers become more popular, they will kill traditional manufacturing industries but many think that 3D printing will simply make important manufacturing easier, cheaper, faster and more convenient.

Although 3D printing has been around since the 80’s, it has only been over the last few years that it has come to the fore, with people seemingly amazed at the speed and simplicity of how objects appear in front of their eyes.

While 3D printers have been used for important manufacturing processes in areas including dental, automotive, military, engineering and fashion, their potential often goes unnoticed by the general public who tend to only see the printers producing plastic heads or teapots. That was until last year when South African aviation specialists, Aerosud, announced plans to build the world’s largest and fastest 3D printer capable of producing aircraft components. The prototype is being put together with the help of the CSIR’s (Council for Scientific and Industrial Research) National Laser Centre (with the partnership now known as Aeroswift) and it has been said that if the innovation proves to be successful it could save airlines millions on manufacturing costs, produce less waste, and use less energy than traditional manufacturing methods.

The project is so exciting that international aviation giant Airbus recently got involved stating that it wanted to test the prototype’s ability to fabricate large, complex aerospace components.

Airbus and one of their chief engineers, Bastian Schafer, have been working on concepts for an airplane that will revolutionise the air travel industry and it is said that large parts of it will be ‘printed’. The design is still only an idea and is not set to be anything more until at least 2050.

So how does 3D printing actually work? Well, using the guide of a digital design, the printer will lay down successive layers of a certain material to match the digital design. Materials can vary and are dependent on the machine but often liquid, powder, paper or sheet materials are used.

Wouter Gerber, Aerosud’s Project Leader; Process Development said last year that the prototype would be ten times faster than any equivalent machines available and would be able to produce components 46 times larger than anything other metal-based 3D printers are able to produce.

The joint venture between Aerosud and the CSIR has benefited from the government’s investment in research and the R37m that will fund phase one had come from the state, Gerber said.

Back in 2012, Forbes reported on the claims from Schaefer and Airbus that aircraft parts could one day be printed and one thing that was immediately apparent was the sheer size and scale of equipment that such an operation would require.

Schaefer told Forbes that the project could one day be feasible and would require use of “a hangar-sized 3D printer.

“It would have to be about 80 by 80 meters,” he said.

Airbus has already released radical concept ideas which have sent air travel and air craft enthusiasts wild with excitement because of its unusual design and futuristic, technological ideas.

Naturally, the concept plane itself is also a showpiece for a raft of other new technologies, including a transparent wall membrane, a 100% recyclable cabin, and “morphing” seats that could harvest body heat from passengers.

So, could you trust a plane made by a printer? For now, major investigations will continue but ideas are already in place with air travel set to be revolutionised within the century.

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