to enable in-house production of multi-material prototype models for concept and design evaluation. Aerospace Manufacturing reports. Designing an airline passenger seat is a highly complex undertaking involving hundreds of suppliers around the world working for years to meet one critical deadline. Since introducing a Stratasys Objet500 Connex1 Multi-Material 3D Printer, airline seat specialist, Zodiac Seats, has been able to relieve some of that pressure by reducing prototype lead-times by up to six weeks compared to traditional methods.
Apart from checking leg room and the degree it can be reclined, you probably don't give much thought to your airline seat. For the 1,500 people who work at Zodiac Seats UK, part of French aerospace giant, Zodiac Aerospace, airline seating is a highly complex and exacting business, encompassing a range of technologies combined with materials that have strict regulations such as size and weight constraints, as well as the aesthetic, comfort and budgetary requirements of each airline.
“We have our catalogue seats that are used for coach class,” explains David Hayward, industrialisation manager at Zodiac Seats UK. “These are standard seats which have a few options relating to covering materials and cushions, but require no design changes. However in our Cwmbran division, we focus on developing bespoke first class, business and premiere economy seating.”
For these products, Zodiac Seats will modify numerous concept designs or design from scratch, and has subsequently installed an Objet500 Connex1 3D Printer from Stratasys to streamline the process.
“I've been at Zodiac Seats for two years and came from an automotive company that routinely used 3D printing in its design and prototyping process,” says Hayward. “There we had three 3D printers. Given the number of projects we handle at Zodiac, and the time it takes to outsource models, I wanted to introduce 3D printing here.”
While there are pockets of the industry where 3D printing is used for final part production, for example the Airbus A350 XWB programme uses about 1,000 Stratasys 3D printed parts, at present, Zodiac Seats' use of 3D printing is for the rapid creation of accurate models and prototypes for design validation.
Time critical challenges
Airlines typically plan aircraft purchases five years in advance.
“For us, adapting a seat design for changes in trim and finish takes about nine months,” explains Hayward. “For a bespoke design, the process takes 20-24 months. It sounds like a long time, but it's a detailed process, and even though we do much of our own manufacturing, we are dependent on a large numbers of suppliers to meet our deadlines.”
The deadline – the ‘unlock date' – is incredibly important. All components for an airliner must be delivered on time to meet the airline delivery date. New or refurbished planes must be loaded and fitted in a particular order and installation crews cannot be idle.
“If we're on schedule, we ship our seats by sea; if there have been delays, we have to fly them to the aircraft manufacturers,” continues Hayward. “Putting a bit more flexibility into this system while improving the design and development process were the key reasons for installing our 3D printer.”
Hayward and his team began researching 3D printers and were quickly drawn to the technologies from Stratasys through UK Gold reseller, Stanford Marsh Group.
“Our big decision was whether to choose a 3D printer that used FDM materials, or a multi-material machine,” he says. “After considering all the factors, we chose the Objet500 Connex1 3D Printer from Stratasys. We liked the unique possibilities of multi-material 3D printing and felt this system would be integral to increasing the efficiency of our design process.”
Better designs delivered faster
The Objet500 Connex1 3D Printer offers a large print tray for models up to 490 x 390 x 200mm (19.5 x 15.35 x 7.9in) with over 140 materials to choose from.
“The Objet500 Connex1 was installed in January 2015 and has really proved itself invaluable to the design team,” says Hayward. “Since it can print hard and soft materials in varying levels of rigidity, we can not only produce prototypes of parts that will be made of metal or composite materials, but also of soft parts like seals and gaskets. To be able to produce these prototypes in materials that simulate the performance of the final manufactured part has changed the entire way we design for manufacture.”
Zodiac Seats uses its Objet500 Connex1 3D Printer to support two company programmes.
“We use it for prototyping and visualisation of product concepts. These are designs for future use that are in the developmental process and not yet scheduled for production,” Hayward explains. “Then, there are the prototypes needed for projects in active development where time is very critical.
“It used to take up to six weeks to get models made. With the Objet500 Connex1 3D Printer, we can have a fully-functional multi-material prototype in our hands in just a few days. After design validation, we pass the 3D printed part to our workshop for final evaluation before committing to manufacturing.”
Other Zodiac Seats locations have 3D printing capabilities and Hayward has established an internal 3D printers users' group to share experiences, ideas and to discuss how they are using the technology. The group also regularly evaluates different 3D printers and materials.
“There is great scope for using 3D printing in the aerospace industry,” he says. “There are lots of restrictions and regulations, but the time and cost benefits throughout the design and manufacturing process are undeniable.
“There's no doubt that the Objet500 Connex1 has saved us a lot of time, enabled more iterations and enhanced the design process,” he concludes. “We haven't been running it long enough to have done a cost analysis yet, but having previously worked in automotive manufacturing, 3D printing saved between 40 and 70% on some jobs. I'd not be surprised to see those kinds of savings here, and certainly expect to see more and more 3D printers in the industry in the near future.”