Airbus Envisions a 3D Printed Future

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“We see a huge value and a huge benefit in 3D Printing.” Curtis Carson, Airbus

Curtis Carson, Head of Systems Integration, Centre of Competence Manufacturing Engineering at Airbus, presented the afternoon keynote on Day 2 of Inside 3D Printing New York City.

Carson opened by setting the stage for the magnitude of the airline industry and Airbus’ operations. Every day, 8 million people get on an airplane. There are over 80,000 flights daily and 15,500 commercial jets that take off and land. And Carson said we can expect significant growth in the future.

“Air traffic will grow at 4.7 percent annually requiring over 29,220 new passenger and freighter aircraft valued at nearly US$4.4 trillion (3.3 trillion euros),” Airbus said in a statement last year.

The supply chain and assembly of aircrafts are large and complex. For example, the Airbus A380 has 4 million individual components. If you were take out all the seats, its floorspace is bigger than a basketball court.

Airbus’ supply chain spans the globe. “These parts are traveling distances, either the raw material, sub-assembly parts, or completed parts,” said Carson. The levels of stock in inventories require significant amount of investment capital.

Airbus 3D Printing Curtis Carson

So where does 3D printing come in?

Airbus is working on 8 main domains of 3D printing exploration:

  1. Prototyping
  2. Tooling
  3. Flying parts
  4. Spare parts
  5. On demand production
  6. Methods and tools
  7. Skills and competencies
  8. R&D

Carson provided some examples of how Airbus has already embraced 3D printing. Plastic equipping brackets are now being 3D printing, saving the company 650,000 Euros per year, and saving weight, about 2.5 kg on a single aircraft.

Airbus is also 3D printing cabin brackets and hinges out of titanium.

Curtis Carson, Head of Systems Integration, Centre of Competence Manufacturing Engineering at Airbus, on 3D printing at Airbus.

“On 2 parts, I can save almost 1 million Euro per year,” explaining that there is potential to integrate 3D printing into aircraft assembly. And these 3D printed parts perform just as well as the traditional parts.

In another example, one of the suppliers for spare parts went bankrupt and the tools to manufacture those parts were lost. When the airlines started Airbus for spare parts, the company embraced the challenge. “Can we adapt something that was designed 30 years ago with today’s technology?” said Carson.

“It’s not like landing gear,” said Carson, acknowledging that the parts 3D printed to date were not mission critical per se, ”but these examples allow us to give credibility to [3D printing].” There are also savings on lead time, getting parts to the assembly.

Where do these savings come from?

  • Accuracy – Airbus is incredibly still producing parts with printed drawings. 3D printing is a forcing function for digital designs and better tooling
  • Less waste – Airbus wastes 90-95% of material through subtractive processes. With 3D printing there is no waste.
  • Lighter weight parts – In the airline industry, weight is performance. Less weight means less fuel burn, which can be a huge savings for the airlines, Airbus’ customers.

Carson also showed a video of the future for Airbus.

But these advantages of 3D printing do not come easy. It takes years of planning to modify which parts are used in assembly and how they are manufacturing. Further, Airbus has 55,000 employees and it takes time to train people across a variety of functions from engineering to assembly to quality inspection. Carson also suggested that the fact 3D printing moves so fast is a challenge. When should Airbus commit to one particular 3D printer or 3D printing process?

Overall, it’s clear that Airbus envisions a 3D printed future. “We see a huge value and a huge benefit behind the technology,” said Carson. The investment case for 3D printing is there, he said. Even though today the value is incremental, the future is wide open.

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