3-D printing in commercial aircraft engineering – a manufacturing revolution is taking off
Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Peter Sander (Spokesperson)
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Claus Emmelmann*
Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Frank Herzog** Airbus Operations GmbH, Hamburg
*LZN Laser Zentrum Nord GmbH, Hamburg
**Concept Laser GmbH, Lichtenfels
Aircraft construction places high demands on design and manufacturing. The challenge is to manufacture sophisticated parts and components efficiently, affordably and as environmentally friendly as possible. How can it be done?
Dipl.-Ing. (FH) Peter Sander, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Claus Emmelmann and Dipl.-Ing. Frank Herzog have developed a process that is now ready to be employed to print three-dimensional metal parts. These parts are slated to be used for the first time in the Airbus A350. Peter Sander is head of the Emerging Technologies & Concepts division at Airbus, Claus Emmelmann is CEO of LZN Laser Zentrum Nord as well as head of the Institute of Laser and System Technologies (iLAS) at the Hamburg University of Technology (TUHH), Frank Herzog is Managing Director of Concept Laser in Lichtenfels.
3-D printing has been making headlines for several years. Unlike conventional methods of production, products are not stamped, sawn or cut out of a material block, rather a part is built layer by layer. This has numerous advantages: it uses less material and energy, which in turn protects resources and the climate. Designers also have greater freedom in part design. And, prototypes, single pieces, or small series of products can be manufactured with relative ease and inexpensively. However, to date only certain materials have been able to be used for additive manufacturing (AM), such as plastics or easy-to-melt alloys.
The three nominated scientists have discovered how to use 3-D printing to manufacture metal components subjected to high mechanical and thermal loading. The "LaserCUSING" process is also suitable for different types of steel, precious metals such as gold and silver alloys as well as metal alloys based on titanium. A high-energy fiber laser light melts the powdered metal. The material hardens as it cools. The laser under computer control scans the powered material line by line and creates the desired shape. To build the complete product, after every layer is applied, the laser moves down by several dozen micrometers and scans the next layer. A patented stochastic control system ensures that even large components like those used in aerospace construction can be printed largely without stresses.
The core of the innovation is the fully digital manufacturing process. In this process, the 3-D printer is integrated in a continuous digital process chain in which the individual steps of production including material logistics and quality assurance are automatic and coordinated. Experts refer to this revolutionary concept as Industry 4.0, and its development and implementation has been pushed by researchers and companies in Germany.
Airbus is using the process jointly developed with Laser Zentrum Nord and Concept Laser to manufacture a titanium alloy bracket. The bracket is used to attach the crew rest area onboard the new A350 XWB jetliner and has been in use since 2015 on the A350. LaserCUSING, as a 'green technology', reduces not only the ecological manufacturing footprint, but also shortens the aircraft's downtime during maintenance: Required spares can be printed on demand and on site. At Airbus plans are in the works to use 3-D printing to produce additional components in future - and to use the pioneering process to create innovative design elements: such as bionic parts modeled on nature.
The importance of 3-D printing of metal products extends to sectors beyond aircraft construction. The technology is expected to replace or complement conventional manufacturing methods in many industries such as vehicle construction, manufacturing and engineering which are so important to Germany. Experts anticipate that the market for 3-D printing will increase fivefold over the next few years.