3D printing specialists Stratasys are pushing the boundaries of additive layer manufacturing economics by moving into visible cabin parts, like a business class seating concept. As Europe marketing vice president Eric Bredin – pictured in a Stratasys-printed seat pod – says, the company wants to help customers move from hidden parts such as printed ducting and cable routing brackets to seat components like arm rests, side panels or IFE housings.

Making visible parts introduces a new level of complexity in both printing and finishing in order to achieve an attractive customer- or crew-facing product. But, says Bredin, some simple parts are already flying – China Eastern Airlines cockpits feature a 3D-printed iPad holder. And there are compelling arguments in favour of tackling these challenges. By slashing the need for manufacturing tooling, 3D printing can mean producing a few pieces economically – as opposed to the high volumes that underpin the cost-effectiveness of traditional technologies.

The “break-even point” where 3D printing becomes more economical than standard production techniques is changing, says Bredin. There are examples now where it pays to make as many as “hundreds” of parts through the process. Business-class fixtures are a good example, as printing opens the way for airlines to deliver, economically, a customised passenger experience in small volumes.

For maintenance, too, printing promises to slash the cost of low-volume parts, as these could be made as required. Ultimately, says Bredin, the ideal maintenance regime would see parts printed on demand at a location close to an aircraft’s next destination – helping airlines ensure that their business-class passengers always get a perfectly-outfitted cabin.

Such a distributed manufacturing scheme is one of the ultimate attractions of 3D printing, because it would turn a global supply chain into the electronic delivery of a design file with local printing and finishing, meaning little or no stockholding. But, Bredin stresses, achieving this kind of streamlined efficiency will ultimately rely on careful co-ordination of the capabilities of Stratasys, airframers, cabin equipment suppliers and MRO providers.

Clearly, he says, the first opportunities for 3D printing in customer-facing parts lie in the “low hanging fruit” of cabin interior pieces that can be made from thermoplastic materials, now printable and certifiable to flame, smoke and toxicity standards.

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Source: Flight Daily News