Collaborative Project Uses WAAM to 3D Print Stiffeners Directly on Airplane Fuselage Panels

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Additive manufacturing is becoming widely used in the aerospace sector. The use to which the technology is being put to use in the manufacture of airplanes is becoming more diverse, from interior cabin elements to actual structural components. It will likely still be some time before we see an entirely 3D printed airplane that flies commercially, but many planes are becoming more 3D printed, one or two components at a time.

STELIA Aerospace, in partnership with Constellium, Centrale Nantes and CT Ingénierie, has developed a demonstrator for metallic self-reinforced fuselage panels, with stiffeners directly 3D printed on the surface. The demonstrator is part of a collaborative project called DEFACTO (DEveloppement de la Fabrication Additive pour Composant TOpologique), and was manufactured using Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing, or WAAM. WAAM involves 3D printing with metal wire and an electric arc like that used in welding. It’s fast and inexpensive compared to other methods of additive manufacturing, and was recently used to manufacture a history-making ship propeller. Because of its flexibility – it’s controlled by a robotic arm – it can manufacture components directly on the surface of a part.

Stiffeners are currently added to fuselage panels using welding and fixing screws, but the participants in the DEFACTO project believe that additive manufacturing could replace these current techniques in the long run. The demonstrator, which measures one square meter, was the result of fuselage topological optimization studies which were carried out by STELIA Aerospace and CT Ingénierie for several years. The large-scale 3D printing technology used to manufacture the demonstrator has the potential to change production and remove the constraints currently involved in the assembly of stiffeners.

STELIA Aerospace has been studying additive manufacturing with the support of Constellium and Ecole Centrale de Nantes, and in 2014 it launched a research strategy involving topological optimization studies that included 3D printing demonstrators for elementary parts such as fittings, large-dimension parts such as frames, and large sub-assemblies. The research strategy includes the DEFACTO project, which was planned for a 2.5-year basis and was co-financed by the participants and by the French Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGAC).

The benefits the project hopes to achieve include new designs, the integration of functions, less ecological impact through the use of less material, lower weight, and fewer recurring manufacturing costs.

“With this 3D additive manufacturing demonstrator, STELIA Aerospace aims to provide its customers with innovative designs on very large structural parts derived from new calculation methods (topological optimisation),” said Cédric Gautier, CEO of STELIA Aerospace. “Through its R&T department, and thanks to its partners, STELIA Aerospace is therefore preparing the future of aeronautics, with a view to develop technologies that are always more innovative and will directly impact our core business, aerostructures.”

STELIA Aerospace is a world leader in the manufacture of aerostructures, pilot seats, business class and first class passenger seats. The company designs and manufactures the front fuselage sections for the entire Airbus family, as well as fully equipped wings for ATR, fully equipped central fuselages for Bombardier’s Global7000, and complex parts for Boeing, Embraer, Northrup Grumman and others. STELIA Aerospace employs 6,900 employees across the world.

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[Images provided by STELIA Aerospace]

 

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