Helicopters can perform tasks that other aircraft are not able to, with applications in fields such as construction, law enforcement, military, tourism, and transportation. 3D printing parts and components for helicopters, such as pump brackets and turbine nozzles, will allow them to be manufactured at lower costs and be more easily operated by pilots.

European aircraft manufacturer Airbus has often used 3D printing to fabricate aircraft parts, and its helicopter manufacturing division, Airbus Helicopters, has definitely followed suit over the years, using the technology to manufacture components like windshield wipers and camera mount extensions.

Now, Airbus Helicopters is getting ready to begin serial production of 3D printed door components for its A350 passenger aircraft. The Airbus facility in Donauwörth, Germany, is currently qualifying the 3D printing production of titanium door latch shafts for the long-haul aircraft, and serial production is scheduled to begin in early 2019. The first A350 aircraft containing the 3D printed components, with serial number 420, should be flying the friendly skies in 2020.

The company is using an EOS M400-4 3D printer to manufacture the latch shafts out of titanium powder. By using four laser beams to melt the powder before the components are built up, it’s possible to make them from far less material, which makes the part more lightweight but still as strong as the original latch shaft component.

EOS M400-4 [Image: EOS]

“We are proud that Airbus Helicopters relies on EOS-Technology for the manufacturing of flight critical components such as latch shafts,” said Nikolai Zaepernick, Senior Vice President Central Europe with EOS. “Our systems provide a very high and reproducible quality. With this machine performance and with our know-how we can significantly support Airbus Helicopters in the certification process for the component.”

Once the current titanium latch shaft was successfully redesigned, things really got moving. Thanks to the redesign and the new production process, according to FlightGlobal, Airbus says that this new move represents its “first large-scale production of metallic 3D-printed components.”

“Our goal is to get developers making more use of 3D printing. This means that 3D printing should be taken into consideration right from the initial planning stages for new components, which may be able to be manufactured particularly easily and cost-effectively using this method. Weight savings are especially important when it comes to helicopters,” explained Luis Martin Diaz, Head of Industrial Service Centers, Airbus Helicopters Donauwörth. “Airbus will start preparations for the industrialisation of 3D-printed helicopter components this year.”

In a single 3D printing process, Airbus can produce up to 28 latch shafts on the M400-4. 3D printing has also allowed the company to make the part 45% more lightweight than the original. Because each A350 has a total of 16 latch shafts, 3D printing the parts has translated to a roughly four kg weight reduction per aircraft. In addition, Airbus has also achieved a 25% production cost reduction. All in all, the company can now offer more economical and environmentally friendly aircraft – all thanks to 3D printing.

L-R: Andreas Stöckle, Head of Industrial Site Airbus Helicopters Donauwörth; Bruno Even, CEO Airbus Helicopters; and Christian Cornille, Head of Industry Airbus Helicopters, complete the ribbon cutting for the industrial metallic 3D printing at Airbus Helicopters in Donauwörth.

Once its new metallic 3D printing production is fully operational, Airbus Helicopters plans to deliver 2,200 components a year. Preparations have also begun to 3D print more A350 door components, and the company also plans to use the technology to make helicopter components for its rotorcraft.

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