Airbus Approves Serialized 3D Printing of Complex A350 Flex Shaft from Liebherr

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With additive manufacturing (AM) collaboration dating back at least to 2017, Liebherr-Aerospace and Airbus have steadily deepened their relationship with regard to 3D printing flight-worthy parts. Most recently, the German division of the Swiss Leibherr Group has announced that it will be serially 3D printing a flex shaft for the A350 aircraft from Airbus.

According to Liebherr-Aerospace, the firm has received approval by Airbus and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to enter the 3D printed flex shaft into series production. The part represents a milestone in the partnership, as Liebherr has been steadily increasing the complexity of the components that it produces for the aerospace giant.

The 3D printed flex shaft, consolidated from seven conventional manufactured components into a single 3D printed part. Image courtesy of Liehberr-Aerospace.

After a spoiler actuator valve block was 3D printed by Liebherr for the A380 in 2017, the company began serial 3D printing of a proximity sensor bracket for the A350 nose landing gear in 2019. This was the first titanium 3D printed part qualified for Airbus. Introducing more complexity still, Liebherr began serial production of a metal 3D printed actuator and valve for the lower cargo door of the A350 in 2022.

The new flex shaft is even more intricate, replacing an assembly of seven conventionally manufactured parts with a single 3D printed component. Not only does this assembly consolidation improve reliability but it also reduces weight. It will be incorporated into the active differential gearbox of the flap system. The flex shaft transmits the rotary movement to a position sensor and thus compensates for an angle and axis misalignment between gearbox and sensor.

Interestingly, Liebherr is also collaborating with China’s state-owned COMAC, an Airbus competitor. Liebherr is constructing the landing gear subsystem for COMAC. While 3D printing hasn’t been publicly integrated into this partnership, it’s notable that Liebherr is developing landing gear parts for both companies, with access to 3D printing technology.

Liebherr’s relationship with COMAC began around 15 years ago with the ARJ21 Regional Jet program. This collaboration was part of a long-term strategic plan to engage with the Chinese aviation market, which Liebherr sees as crucial for its business growth. The partnership has expanded significantly over the years, leading to the establishment of the joint venture Liebherr LAMC Aviation (Changsha) Co., Ltd. in 2012. This joint venture is responsible for developing and assembling landing gear systems for COMAC’s ARJ21 and C919 aircraft. Another notable overlap is the fact that metal 3D printer manufacturer Xi’an Bright Laser Technologies (BLT) is also a supplier to both COMAC and Airbus. BLT has contributed various metal parts for the C919, such as titanium components for the cabin door and fan inlet.

As discussed in “The State of Chinese Additive Manufacturing: Market Opportunity Brief” from AM Research, the Chinese 3D printing sector is rapidly catching up and, in some regards, surpassing historically leading regions like the U.S. and Europe. In this case, we can see how China’s aerospace sector, for instance, is playing a leading role in that trend. Therefore, while Airbus continues to dominate in the application of AM to aircraft, that may not always be the case, with its own suppliers mutually benefitting its own business as well as those of its competitors.

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