3D Printing a Futuristic Airplane Cabin: Innovation at Airbus
Could you 3D print an airplane? Some engineers at Airbus seem to think so, at least by 2050 and with a really big 3D printer.
Bastian Schaefer, a cabin engineer with Airbus, has been working for the last two years on a concept cabin that envisions what the future of flight would look like from the passenger’s perspective. From that came a radical concept: build the aircraft itself from the ground up with a 3D printer that’s very large in deed, ie. as big as an aircraft hangar. That probably sounds like a long shot, since the biggest 3D printers today are about the size of a dining table. But the Airbus design comes with a roadmap, from 3D-printing small components now, through to the plane as a whole around 2050.
Why use 3D printing at all? Airbus parent EADS has been looking into using the process, known as additive layer manufacturing, for making aircraft for some time because it’s potentially cheaper, and can result in components that are 65% ligher than with traditional manufacturing methods. Airbus’ concept plane is also so dizzyingly complicated that it requires radical manufacturing methods: from the curved fuselage to the bionic structure, to the transparent skin that gives passengers a panoramic view of the sky and clouds around them.
The challenges are many. First, you need a 3D printer big enough to print airplane parts. Second, you need to incorporate precise, lightweight materials into the additive manufacturing construction. And third, this novel design needs to pass stringent regulation in the aviation industry.
Again the engineers are on the case.
EADS has been experimenting with 3D printing and famously printed an “Airbike” last year. Schaefer, who has been with Airbus for six years, started working on the transparent concept cabin project around the same time as the Airbike project in 2010, calling on colleagues from different departments at Airbus. “We have an opportunity to do something different,” he told them.
He and other industrial designers, tech- and trend-scouts started brainstorming and came up with the current, 3D printed concept design. He has around 10 people working on the project with him, including industrial designers and tech scouts, all trying to push the technology forward.
Below is a video showcasing the Airbus concept cabin, which incorporates many of these new design ideas.
Airplane cabin photo by WexDub used under Creative Commons license.