Since it was first introduced in 2013, the Airbus‘ A350 XWB (extra wide body) passenger airliner has incorporated 3D printed parts. Through a collaboration with Stratasys, the pioneering aerospace giant has developed and certified metal and resin non-structural production parts – such as brackets and system installation components – and has now announced a contract extension for the production of 3D printed polymer cabin interior components.
This new agreement expands the range of parts printed for Airbus to include replacement and spare components for maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) and parts for aircraft platforms in addition to the A350, including the A300, A330, A340, and A320. In fact, 3D printed parts are already flying on other Airbus planes, such as metal printed cabin brackets and bleed pipes. Even more so, one of the crucial benefits of the technology is the possibility of 3D printing on-demand, which is very appealing to a company like Airbus, expected to require spare parts for its aircraft for decades.
For example, the A300/A310 will need spares until 2050. More than 200 of these aircraft will go into service by around 2025, which means the company has been struggling to figure out how to channel the availability of spares without the gigantic storage space and capital requirements. Fortunately, along with a considerable reduction in initial costs associated with airplane construction, the use of additively manufactured parts has helped reduce costs for maintenance over the airplane’s lifecycle.
One of the hardest-hit industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines suffered the worst year in history, with global passenger traffic declining by 65.9%, compared to 2019. Emerging new strains of the coronavirus could even limit recovery to just 13% above 2020 levels, according to World Economic Forum estimates. Nonetheless, with signs of recovery from pandemic slowdowns, the aviation industry is expected to increasingly turn to additive manufacturing (AM) for strong yet lighter-weight parts and consolidated assemblies. The digital inventory of 3D printable spare parts also promises to make MRO operations more agile and cost-effective.
By the time Airbus began delivering units of its A350 XWB in December 2014 – the first to Qatar Airways – they were already producing thousands of flight parts on Stratasys’s fused deposition modeling (FDM) systems. More than 1,000 3D printed parts were used in place of traditionally manufactured ones to increase supply chain flexibility, enabling Airbus to meet its delivery commitment on time.
Stratasys and Airbus share a history of collaboration, having worked together since 2013 on the implementation of 3D printing FDM technology for Airbus tools and flying parts. This collaboration led to the qualification in 2014 of the flame-retardant, high-performance thermoplastic ULTEM 9085 for production of flying parts on Airbus aircraft. In 2020, Stratasys even announced that Airbus was standardizing the 3D printing material for the production of flight parts for its A350 XWB aircraft. Stratasys’s ULTEM 9085 resin is certified to an Airbus material specification. By combining a high strength-to-weight ratio with flame, smoke, and toxicity (FST) compliance for aircraft flight parts, ULTEM 9085 enables the production of strong, lighter-weight parts while substantially lowering manufacturing costs and production time.
Initially conceived in 2004, the A350 XWB aircraft resulted from a $15 billion investment and years of design. A direct competitor to Boeing‘s 787 Dreamliner, the A350 XWB is built with over 70% advanced materials, combining carbon composites (53%), titanium, and modern aluminum alloys, to create a lighter and more cost-efficient aircraft while also reducing maintenance requirements. The combination of these advantages results in 25% lower operating costs, fuel burn, and carbon emissions when compared with previous-generation aircraft. Airbus delivered the 350th Airbus A350 aircraft to one of its top customers, Air France, in February 2020. The aircraft is also being used to help usher in the future of air travel, with an A350-1000 XWB performing an autonomous takeoff with no pilot input in December 2020.
Relying on innovative 3D printing solutions for aerospace means Airbus can use smart and connected 3D printers, polymer materials, a software ecosystem, and parts on-demand. The jet airliner manufacturer has also collaborated with other 3D printing companies to reap the benefits of the technology, including Materialise, Ultimaker, and EOS. With Stratasys, the suite of solutions is being leveraged to deliver competitive advantages at every stage of the product value chain and transform product design.
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