China’s First Large Commercial Passenger Jet, Featuring 3D Printed Metal Parts, Makes Successful Maiden Flight


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While it took China a little longer to embrace 3D printing technology, once companies across the country started to get on board, nothing could slow them down. Developments have been made in 3D printing with metal and in aerospace 3D printing, and earlier this month, the first large Chinese commercial passenger jet, featuring 3D printed parts, made its maiden test flight from the Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The 168-seat C919 aircraft, manufactured by the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd. (COMAC), demonstrated that it was able to safely stop on the runway in case of an emergency in its final ground trial in April, and this month’s successful maiden flight was an important milestone for COMAC, and the Chinese aviation industry as a whole.

China hopes to become one of the leading manufacturers of large commercial aircraft, and the C919, which is about the same size as the popular Boeing 737-800 and Airbus A320, is just the first step. It’s been a long journey – the plane was originally supposed to enter service in 2016, as China’s state-owned airlines signed up to purchase the plane back in 2010. But the prototype wasn’t ready until late 2015, due to technical development delays, and it could still face months, or even years, of certification tests, and design changes may be necessary in order to meet safety standards.

Additionally, even though China is expected to become the world’s largest commercial aviation market by 2030, beating out the US, COMAC will need to get Chinese airlines to trust it. Other countries, like Canada, the UK, France, Russia, and the US, have been successful in developing large, homegrown airliners, and COMAC will need to demonstrate that its C919 can operate reliably and efficiently on scheduled flights in order to catch up.

The C919’s successful first flight, and its development, is certainly keeping in line with the Made in China 2025 master plan, which focuses on ten sectors, including the development of aerospace equipment and 3D printing to boost the country’s overall manufacturing growth. In order to reduce weight and increase safety, COMAC used specialty metals, such as titanium alloys, and 3D printing technology to develop parts for the jet; multiple suppliers across the country manufactured the parts, while COMAC took care of the design and assembly in Shanghai.

Wendy Mok, Research Manager of IDC’s Imaging Printing and Document Solutions research, said, “Outsourcing 3D printing services will save the initial investment cost and enables the manufacturers to focus on product development. Moreover, individual suppliers could provide services and parts according to their product portfolios. Such collaborations will help improve the overall product quality. This business model also provides 3D printer vendors a point of penetration. The local aircraft makers will not be the only ones to benefit from the growing aviation industry, with foreign companies also looking at China’s airliner market. Boeing is planning to build a facility in China while Airbus have started to assemble their A320s in Tianjin. Moreover, parts supplied by foreign companies could be made in China as well. The huge domestic demand on airliners is attracting more market players and competition. This will further push the growth of 3D printing industry in terms of both hardware and materials.”

The current C919 parts were mostly made in China, while foreign suppliers manufactured critical parts: FACC supplied the cockpit and Honeywell Aerospace made the navigation and flight control systems, brakes and wheels, and auxiliary power units, while Liebherr-Aerospace made the landing gear, CFM International provided the jet engines, and FalconTech supplied 30 additional metal 3D printed parts. While these suppliers, and imported 3D printers, were extremely valuable in getting the C919 up in the air, the goal is to increase the local manufacturing of parts to 90%, and install jet engines that are made in China. This “aggressive development” of the country’s aviation industry will definitely increase the demand for metal powders and 3D printers, as China’s metal 3D printer market was 181 units last year, and is expected to grow four times in three years.

“We will see more use cases on the adoption of 3D printing technologies in the aerospace industry,” Mok said. “For instance, General Electric (GE) acquired two metal 3D printer manufacturers, Concept Laser and Arcam, in which they have been providing 3D printers to aircraft parts manufacturers. Jet engine manufacturer Rolls Royce is one of Arcam’s users. Norsk Titanium produces the first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved 3D printed structural titanium components for Boeing Dreamliner. In China, the success of C919’s maiden flight implies the use of 3D printed parts on airliners have been recognized by the aviation industry in China. The domestic demand for 3D printed parts will grow with expectations that the orders of 570 units of C919 delivered by COMAC in the future, coupled with an increase in localization rate.”

Orders for the C919 jet are, so far at least, almost entirely from Chinese carriers for domestic flights. I’m certain that will change, but for now, the jet’s maiden flight is showcasing 3D printing technology as a major role model in the country’s manufacturing sector, and the brand effect will help in promoting application and development of other groundbreaking technologies. As more Chinese companies, in the fields of architecture, medicine, and even environmental protection, continue to adopt 3D printing, the Chinese government will allocate more resources to develop the manufacturing sector, to achieve the goals of the Made in China 2025 plan.

“Market players like 3D printer vendors, material suppliers and service bureaus should have a comprehensive understanding on the market segments and their related development trends,” Mok said. “With the right market positioning and entry point, these market players will be able to gain more return on the fast-growing 3D printing market.”

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[Sources: CNN, IDC / Images: COMAC]


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