Aircraft manufacturing technology has come a long way since the start of the industry. Not only have aircraft and engine makers pioneered the use of metal alloys and composite materials over the decades, they are now at the forefront of another industrial revolution.
Innovative additive layer manufacturing, or more simply ‘3D printing’ technology, is beginning to shape the future of aircraft component manufacture. Parts produced with this method are already beginning to appear on the latest generation of aircraft, producing components that weigh 30-55% less than traditional metal parts.
Whilst there are a huge number of options across the fields of aircraft manufacturing for 3D parts, at Airbus there are two principal types of new manufacturing capabilities offering environmental benefits. The first only uses the material needed to produce the part and gives a significant reduction in waste. Airbus is already qualifying some metallic components in titanium, such as welded brackets to hold bleed air pipes in the aircraft hold, that provide an 87% saving in waste for its A350 XWB aircraft.
The second offers weight saving through 3D design of the components, without having to take into consideration the manufacturing constraints of producing a traditional metal part. Strength is provided where it is needed, with no excess in the material used. Less weight reduces fuel burn and CO2 emissions. 3D Polymer components, such as ramps used to attach electrical harnesses to the aircraft structure, saving 2.4 kilograms per plane, will be equipping the A350XWB.
As the technology matures, more and more parts will be produced, bringing down weight and emissions even further. This game-changing technology could also decrease total energy used in production, by up to 90% compared with traditional methods.