Premium AEROTEC, a subsidiary of European aircraft manufacturer Airbus and a manufacturer of aero structures in its own right, has been a key adopter of additive manufacturing technologies in the aerospace sector. Understandable, as the company, which employs 10,000 people and generates 2 billion euros in revenue yearly, is continually seeking to integrate state-of-the-art manufacturing technologies into its business.
Notably, in 2015 Premium AEROTEC opened a manufacturing facility dedicated entirely to AM. And last year, the company got approval from German certification board EASA to additively manufacture titanium parts for serial production of its A400M military aircraft.
Recently, we had the chance to speak to Gerd Weber, Head of Plant Varel / Bremen at Premium AEROTEC about the benefits, challenges, and realities that surround additive manufacturing in the aircraft manufacturing sector.
AM for Aircraft Parts
In speaking about the A400M military transport aircraft, Weber explained that Premium AEROTEC is currently 3D printing six different parts for its fuel ventilation system, on a serial production level.
“We are increasing that this year,” he says, explaining that the company is working on the final qualification for a set of parts for Airbus’ A350 program. The parts, he says, have geometries that are bionically inspired, which means that they have reduced weights while still supporting the fatigue loads that the aircraft requires.
“It’s a set of 10 parts that we will bring on the aircraft this year. It’s going to be the first bionically inspired part flying on a real aircraft program—this is a real second breakthrough for us.”
Currently, Premium AEROTEC is working primarily with powder bed additive manufacturing systems. “This is the most advanced tech for us in terms of maturity and qualification,” says Weber. “We are working with high deposition (DED) technology, but it will take more time.” Weber estimates that by 2018, Premium AEROTEC will be working more with high deposition additive manufacturing technologies.
What can you expect to find running at the aircraft manufacturer’s AM facility? According to Weber, the company is regularly using a number of metal AM systems from German company Concept Laser (recently acquired by GE), including its XLINE2000 3D printer, which it uses for titanium parts. An EOS M 290 and a recently acquired M 400 3D printer produce parts from aluminum.
“We have other customers outside of Airbus which are mainly in the space industry,” comments Weber. “For satellite parts and launcher parts, AM is very promising tech for these low rate and low volume parts.”
Premium AEROTEC also recently partnered with EOS and car manufacturer Daimler to prepare the next generation of industrial 3D printing (NextGenAM). Together, the companies are seeking to develop a production system for serial additive manufacturing.
When asked about composites, Weber replies that while Premium AEROTEC is keeping an eye on them, there is no serious research being conducted as of yet. “I do think that it is promising, but it will take a few more years of development until it is good for aircraft structures,” he says.
Weber also says that hybrid AM systems are not ready to produce safety critical parts for the civil aviation industry, and might never be. “It is not imaginable that we could have the machining and build process in one chamber, because of pollution and hydraulic fluids.” He adds that it would be impossible to get qualification for a flight part made using a hybrid process.
“For example, we never change the material: one machine is dedicated to one material and we will never run another material on it,” he says. “This is mandatory to keep up reproducibility.”
Some of the major challenges facing the aerospace manufacturing industry in regards to AM are qualification and certification, says Weber. Working alongside authorities, it is a very long and rigorous process to qualify and certify a 3D printed aircraft part, especially if it is destined for flight.
Not only do you have to produce the part to have it qualified, he says, but certification requires in depth testing as well as assurance that the 3D printing process being used can consistently produce the same level of quality for a given part. That, according to Weber, is the real obstacle.
Another notable challenge is that existing AM systems are not technically very industrial. Weber explains that Premium AEROTEC is currently working with machine suppliers to achieve a higher industrial level for AM, emphasizing repeatability, process automation, and workflow integration.
“30% of the manufacturing is in the [additive manufacturing] machine itself, the rest is in pre- and post-processing,” he says. “Even if we improve productivity of the machine we only address 30% of the overall cost. We really need to increase our scope and look not only at the printer itself. We want a fully integrated process chain from a central powder supply to a heat treated finished part.”
“AM companies are very young, and their idea is to make 3D printing machines. If today I go to a machining tech manufacturer, it knows I am not interested in the machine itself, I am interested in the part production process. We don’t care about the different elements, we only care for the integrated production system.”