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AMS Spring 2023

Aerospace 3D Printing Applications for Aftermarket Targeted by Materialise and Proponent

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Last year we reported on a new partnership between Materialise (NASDAQ: MTLS) and aerospace parts distributor Proponent to reinforce the aerospace aftermarket supply chain. Now, Materialise has revealed that during the initial stages of the association, the two companies are working on spotting applications and aerospace parts that benefit most from the whole additive manufacturing (AM) process. To deal with this, the consultancy division Materialise Mindware provides its expertise in application development to identify which parts are most suitable for 3D printing.

Overall, the duo seeks to team up with aerospace OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) and suppliers to offer airlines and MROs (maintenance, repair, and operations) a one-stop-shop solution for aftermarket parts where 3D printing is featured alongside other manufacturing technologies.

Materialise is one of the pioneers in 3D printing. Founded in 1990, the company was one of the earliest AM specialists helping many new applications evolve and succeed, including aerospace ones. Through its certified manufacturing and specialist consultancy services, the Belgian headquartered 3D printing solutions provider has a wide range of certified 3D printed parts for non-critical interior applications, from aesthetic cabin interior parts to functional components. In addition, as a European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Part 21 subpart G-certified holder of production organization approval (POA), it provides additive manufacturing services for flight-ready parts.

Some examples include spacer panels for Airbus planes made with fused deposition modeling (FDM) and Ultem 9085 (one of the company’s certified materials for flight-ready parts) and dado panels (a grill located at the bottom of the aircraft cabin wall, beside the window seat) for EASA-certified design organization Expleo on the Boeing B737 aircraft.

Although, for now, most projects involve interior parts, there’s scope to expand to other areas. Erik de Zeeuw, Materialise market manager, commented on the advantages associated with 3D printing: “Once the industry switches its outlook and realizes the benefits and design freedoms that 3D printing offers, we’ll see the aerospace industry take off. We believe that spreading the word, giving guidance, and training engineers to think and design for AM will help facilitate this change.”

Materialise and Proponent officially signed the deal at MRO Europe 2021.

Materialise and Proponent officially signed the deal at MRO Europe 2021. Image courtesy of Materialise

With nearly 50 years of aerospace expertise, Proponent has amassed a 400,000 high-quality aircraft part portfolio. However, after mapping the potential benefits of 3D printing for the aerospace aftermarket, the Proponent team saw the potential benefits of the technology instead of considering it a threat to the legacy store and ship model the company has embraced for decades. As a result, when the agreement was officially signed last year at MRO Europe, the company said it “created a huge buzz in the 3D printing community,” as it was one of the first deals of its kind.

With this new historic deal already taking force, the duo will help OEMs and MROs explore 3D printing as a complementary technology and benefit from its ability to produce on-demand part series. For example, Airbus’ large wide-body airliner A380 comprises more than four million pieces, which involves an intricate supply chain of manufacturers and aftermarket suppliers to get the machine off the ground.

Instead, 3D printing can help boost supply chains, accelerating lead times for these machines. In addition, the 3D printing leader suggests that AM parts can be manufactured in smaller production runs, contributing to sustainability targets while helping OEMs avoid stock risks from keeping legacy parts on hand and simultaneously allowing MRO purchasers to avoid high minimum order quantities. Even more so, 3D printed components can be manufactured and delivered quickly, without the disadvantage of needing extra storage or ordering in bulk, which is crucial for urgent 24 to 48-hour requests.

Rico Engelman, Materialise’s business development manager for aerospace, says there are plenty of these types of requests, such as when an aircraft is grounded and engineers need specific parts quickly. But on the other hand, he also highlights the importance of reducing stock for OEMs and only storing what’s required. “It’s a delicate balancing act,” he defined, one where on-demand production is the obvious solution.

Additionally, Engelman suggests that specialist engineering departments typically govern 3D printing in aerospace, so when to opt for 3D printing is treated as a technical one. Instead, the new partnership will make it increasingly accessible for MROs to source 3D-printed parts.

“From our experience at Materialise, though, we know that the on-demand nature of 3D-printed parts can answer pains that are more felt in purchasing: sourcing and stocking legacy parts, managing total costs, speeding up lead times. So what we want to do, by partnering with Proponent, is to make 3D printing more accessible.”

Deals like this one are sure to increase the adoption of 3D printing and develop an awareness of the technology. Considering how much aerospace businesses are looking to speed up lead times and cut down on total costs, the potential for 3D printed parts is tremendous. Joining forces with one of the leading aerospace part distributors globally is a significant step forward for Materialise. It will help spread the knowledge of 3D printing in one of the most strategic industries to global economies.

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