Jim Vurpillat, marketing director for automotive and aerospace at Stratasys, offers his insight on how additive manufacturing (AM) continues to impact the aerospace industry and what we can expect from the technology moving forward.
Q: What makes additive manufacturing such a good fit for the aerospace industry in particular?
Additive manufacturing technology, such as that offered by Stratasys, helps aerospace manufacturers reduce costly design challenges, and downtime, whilst innovating faster, testing more thoroughly, and producing customised, flight-ready parts. The aerospace industry is constantly pushing technological boundaries to reduce weight and increase vehicle performance. Additive manufacturing accomplishes those goals. The advancement of 3D printing materials offers terrific weight savings in comparison to traditional manufactured parts and enables economical production of incredibly complex shapes that are often found in aerospace vehicles. It’s therefore not surprising that the industry is increasingly looking to the technology to realise those gains.
Aerospace component production is a low-quantity, high-value operation. Because the quantities are low, users receive less mass-production benefit as they aren’t amortising tooling and development costs over as many units. With additive manufacturing of production parts, there is no tooling to amortise. Therefore, at aerospace quantities, the technology is often a lower-cost alternative to traditional manufacturing methods.
Q: How has the relationship between additive manufacturing and the aerospace industry evolved in recent times?
We have been working closely with aerospace OEMs for years. The use of the technology continues to take steps forward. Stratasys’ ULTEM 9085 material caters specifically to the needs of the aerospace industry. This FAA-approved material provides high strength-to-weight ratio and is flame, smoke and toxicity (FST) compliant for aircraft interior applications. We’re now seeing more aircraft OEMs and interiors OEMs adopt our applied additive technologies to meet their specific needs.
For example, our relationship with Airbus stretches back several years. We collaborated with them to prove feasibility on FDM technology for flight-ready parts. The previously mentioned ULTEM 9085 was qualified in this way. In July 2017, Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, a subsidiary of Stratasys, was announced as Airbus’ supplier of choice for the serial production of 3D printed polymer parts on their A350 XWB aircraft. Now, Airbus has access to fuel-saving, lightweight aircraft interior parts produced with flight-ready thermoplastic on demand.
We maintain our commitment to helping our customers innovate, and advance their industries. In June 2017, we announced a technical partnership with BOOM Supersonic, which will see us provide additive manufacturing expertise to enable the company to make its supersonic goals a viable reality. The team will have access to a wide range of Stratasys engineering thermoplastics. We will also be exploring new application spaces by printing with composite materials including our carbon fibre-filled Nylon, and various developmental material systems.
Q: How does 3D printing improve supply chain flexibility?
It completely redefines the economics around a make/buy decision. Instead of making one decision during the development phase about producing or buying a certain part, access to additive manufacturing technology enables you to make that call at every procurement. Based on your current capacity and the urgency for the part, you can choose to produce it within your own facility, or outsource it to a qualified supplier. The ability to produce the same part on another qualified machine allows you to move around production for better efficiency and risk reduction.
The impact on the aftermarket is, perhaps, even more dramatic. We have already seen obsolete parts replaced with reverse engineered 3D printed parts, and that has a significant impact on how operators are viewing the long-term implications of 3D printing. Imagine eliminating the tens of billions of dollars in inventory sitting idly on shelves around the world waiting for an aircraft-on-ground. When you can print a tool or a part, those tools and parts can be stocked digitally and produced on demand.
At this year’s Paris Airshow, we launched our specific system for this market: The Aircraft Interiors Certification solution. This is based on the Fortus 900mc Production 3D Printer, and designed specifically for producing aircraft interior parts which will need to meet stringent FAA and EASA certification requirements. We’ve incorporated the FDM ULTEM 9085 material and a new edition of the Fortus 900mc Production 3D Printer with specialised hardware and software, which is designed to deliver highly repeatable mechanical properties. The qualification is now underway with the National Institute of Aviation Research and the National Centre for Advanced Materials Performance and is planned to be completed this year.
The concepts of lifetime buy and stocking 20 years of spares for a part going out of production will soon become a thing of the past.
Q: Recently the Airbus A350 XWB programme used around 1,000 3D printed flight parts. Ten years from now, how many parts will be produced via 3D printing?
The speed and extent of adoption will always be driven by the materials and the systems to deliver them. As previously mentioned, at the recent Paris Airshow, we announced our Aircraft Interiors Certification Solution designed significantly to overcome the challenges of creating airworthy 3D printed parts.
Over the next few years, higher performance thermoplastics and printed composites will expand the gamut of applications dramatically as we move into secondary structure and more critical components. The same is true of metals: as process control gets better, and higher quality finished parts are produced, they will be used in a wider and more critical range of applications.
Q: What are the environmental benefits of 3D printing within the aerospace sector?
First and foremost, it’s the fuel reduction achieved from lightweighting parts. Additive manufacturing helps reduce weight in two ways. First, since the part is built up, rather than cut out of a solid block, the opportunity exists to tailor the geometry so that only the material needed to carry the load is used. This saves on waste material and reduces the buy-to-fly ratio. This can also make for some very complex yet elegant skeleton-like parts and also applies to internal geometry. You can’t machine the inside out of a closed part, but some additive manufacturing technologies enable the production of a very sparse interior, which can result in large parts that are very light.
Q: What are the challenges for additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry?
Process repeatability is the key. This year we’ve pushed the Fortus 900mc to achieve the necessary levels, aligning with one of our customers’ biggest challenges; creating flight-ready, certifiable parts on-demand. The Stratasys Infinite-Build 3D Demonstrator is designed to address the requirements of the industry for large lightweight thermoplastic parts with repeatable mechanical properties. However, any equipment or process for use in a production environment will need to demonstrate this repeatability. We’re now defining qualification processes, standards and designs so that we can move largely experimental technologies to accepted and industrialised technologies.