Building with a new generation

Airbus Autodesk
Airbus Autodesk

In this article, Raymond Deplazes, Autodesk’s manager for manufacturing industry communications, discusses how Airbus and the design software developer are using generative design not only for new aircraft components, but also for the factories that build them.

Both Autodesk and Airbus are dedicated to pushing the boundaries of advanced technologies in the pursuit of innovation and a more sustainable world. So, it should come as no surprise that the two companies are teaming up to fundamentally change how things will be manufactured and built in the aerospace industry of the near future.

At Autodesk University in Las Vegas, Airbus has revealed details of how it’s using generative design to tackle complex engineering, architectural and systems challenges. Solving those challenges will enable a smarter, more efficient, and more economical business, while better catering to the needs of its workforce and with less negative impact on the environment.

As part of an ongoing effort, Airbus is re-imagining multiple structural aircraft components, applying Autodesk’s generative design to develop lighter weight parts that exceed performance and safety standards. In an industry where less weight equals less fuel consumption, using this approach presents a huge opportunity to reduce the adverse effects of air travel on the environment.

An Airbus wing factory. Image courtesy of Airbus

Bionic Partition 2.0

Airbus already unveiled its first generative design proof-of-concept back in 2015, but it has taken further developments in manufacturing technology to build it. The Bionic Partition 2.0 is a next-generation version of the wall and seating support structure that divides the passenger compartment from the galley of a plane.

The initial design was promising – 45% lighter than the traditional part yet just as strong. Airbus estimated the new design approach could save nearly half a million metric tons of CO₂ emissions per year if rolled out across its backlog of A320 planes.

Originally the intention was to fabricate the new partition using metal additive manufacturing but due to a range of variables in the manufacturing market and materials requirements, it became clear that an alternative fabrication process would be necessary. Fortunately, Autodesk’s generative design technology has continued to mature and is now capable of optimising multiple advanced manufacturing techniques during the design phase of product development.

For Airbus, this meant they could use generative design to create a plastic, 3D-printed mould for the partition, and then cast the part in an alloy that’s already qualified for flight. The Bionic Partition 2.0 is just as strong and light as its predecessor and can be fabricated at scale more affordably.

A 3D print of the generatively designed vertical tail plane. Image courtesy of Airbus

“The revised design makes the bionic partition much more viable for production. The first prototype is in production, which we hope to finish before the end of the year,” explains Bastian Schaefer, the designer at Airbus who has been leading the collaboration with Autodesk. “The process and technology have evolved to where we can now manufacture multiple units at a considerably lower cost.”

Airbus is in the process of utilising generative design to rethink other structural aircraft components, including the leading edge of the vertical tail plane (VTP) of the A320. The purpose of a VTP (or vertical stabiliser) is to provide directional stability and reduce aerodynamic inefficiency caused by side-to-side movement.

Generative design is enabling the team to evaluate hundreds of design alternatives that all meet objectives for VTP stiffness, stability and mass.

Factory of the future

Airbus is also looking beyond airplane parts to the processes and spaces for making them. The aircraft OEM is now employing generative design for the layout of adaptable, DGNB (a German accreditation for sustainable architecture) and LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified factories with streamlined logistics to facilitate improved employee work conditions and greater productivity.

Positive responses to what generative design could do for aircraft components led Airbus to explore what the technology might do for other parts of its business. Earlier this year, the team began thinking about how generative design could be applied to the building design, layout and workflows of its factories.

First, the company looked at an assembly line for A350 wings where a significant amount of human labour and several different tools are required. The objective was to figure out how a single factory bay could be configured for multiple wing variations from the different generations of the A350, with optimal tool locations and travel paths, and minimal congestion and bottlenecks.

Based on the success of that pilot project, Airbus is now turning its attention to an entirely new factory for assembling engines, to be built next year on an empty plot of land at its campus in Hamburg, Germany. The goal is to ultimately assemble engines more quickly with more efficient logistical flows and a more content workforce, in a factory that is expandable and adaptable to meet Airbus’ needs both today and in the future.

The team identified ten constraints for evaluation by the generative design system, some weighted more heavily than others, such as efficiency and cost.

A rendering of the Airbus engine assembly factory. Image courtesy of Autodesk

They included: Lot Efficiency – the total amount and proportion of usable left-over space inside of site boundary and outside of building footprint; Construction cost; Sustainability – features critical for DGNB/LEED certification, including a green roof deck for employees, building acoustics and thermal comfort; Employee work conditions – such as distance to and from workstations; Logistics flow – e.g. flow paths between stations along the production line.

Additionally, Customer experience – views from the lobby and other customer zones; Daylight – for example, the amount of natural diffuse light in critical spaces of the office; and lastly, Flexibility – the potential for the building to expand in the future.

Generative design provided two paths that Airbus is currently considering: a bigger building with an unconventional footprint, or the same factory elements optimised to fit into a smaller rectangular footprint.

“Generative design is helping us create a more sustainable architectural design that better accounts for critical human factors and work conditions,” says Schaefer. “It has also expanded our way of thinking and our approach to design by overcoming preconceived notions and blind spots. Whichever design we choose, we know the factory will function more efficiently and will be less costly to build.”

For Airbus, it appears the future of making and building has arrived.




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