3D printing in airlines – a new paradigm

Aircraft refurbishing has taken many turns with respect to new technologies. The new era of technological development is marked by the evolution of three dimensional printing or 3DP. Many industrial manufacturers are opting for 3D printing technology (or additive printing) to prototyping and product development in order to spur innovation and reduce time-to-market. This technology is used in many industries such as the healthcare industry, chemical industry, food industry, architecture, automotive industry, textile industry, robotics and the aeronautics industry. The aerospace and aeronautics industry has pushed the limits of complexities involved in geometric design. The evolution and improvement in aircrafts demand efficient parts, which is driving the need for optimisation in design at every point in the ecosystem and at the highest level. Traditional methods of manufacturing create difficulties in designing of the various parts, and it is a challenge for engineers to use these methods to achieve optimisation at the required level. Hence, they prefer 3D printing, which allows designing of complex shapes and facilitates innovation in the aeronautics and aerospace industry. To mention one more aspect backing up the adoption of 3D printing against traditional methods is 3D printing is both time saving and cost-efficient. It is possible and convenient to fully complete different complex iterations in half the time it would take if other manufacturing techniques are employed.

Etihad Airways, Strata Manufacturing and Siemens AG are in collaboration talks to develop 3D printed parts for the interiors of aircrafts in North Africa and Middle East. This will be the first of its kind. By leveraging 3D printing or additive manufacturing, this collaboration intends to revolutionise the aerospace industry to improve various parts, which includes manufacturing of complex parts as per the demand and also the manufacturing of discontinued parts. The pilot phase will entail the development of 3D printing solutions for the interiors of UAE’s national airlines – the Etihad. Siemens – with its vast expertise in 3D printing and digitalisation – will be responsible for material selection, testing and process flow. Etihad’s design team will be accountable for the certification of parts while Strata Manufacturing will actually manufacture these parts. Basis the pilot program success, for further industrial development in additive manufacturing or 3D printing in the Middle East, UAE and North Africa, Siemens and Strata will investigate the development of a strategic three year joint roadmap. This will comprise training and development along with the requirement of the necessary skills for further improvement and deployment of the 3D printing technology. According to Etihad, there is a great potential for 3D printing in the aviation industry, which can facilitate faster production of discontinued parts and complex parts as per changing dynamics in the demand side, increasing the feasibility quotient of the design improvement of airline parts. The greatest challenge here is the certification of 3D printed parts. To aid manufacturing processes in areas such as tooling and fixtures, Strata would be exploring each and every angle in the 3D printing technology. This would be the most effective and relevant technology contributing to the region’s development across a range of sectors.

To add to the growing adoption of 3D printing technology in aerospace, Singapore Technologies Aerospace (called ST Aerospace) adopts the technology for designing VIP aircraft interiors. It has opened a new “VIP interiors centre” which is armed with 3D printing workshops and digital design studios to fabricate luxury cabin interiors in aircrafts. ST Aerospace deals with the repair, aviation maintenance and overhaul for military as well as commercial aircraft carriers. The demand for cabin refurbishment in the airlines industry is increasing for corporate as well as private jets and ST Aerospace is looking forward to leap in and answer this call. Moreover, along with the refurbishment of VIP interiors, the centre will also be dealing with the maintenance for narrow body VIP aircrafts, which includes Airbus Corporate Jets and Boeing Business Jets. This initiative would enable ST Aerospace to rise up in the value chain by inducing diversification with regards to value-added service offerings, thereby expanding Singapore’s geographic outreach in the aviation and aerospace ecosystem. 3D printing technology is fast gaining adoption in the interior design of aircraft cabins. The recent U.S Air Force approval for cost-effective 3D printed interior parts for the AWACS aircraft is proof of this fact. Airbus has also introduced 3D printing of cabin interiors that reduces the aircraft weight significantly. For designers and manufacturers, sky is the limit for creative innovation and this technology just gives all the necessary tools and opportunities to expand their perspective.

Nikhil Kaitwade

With over 8 years of experience in market research and consulting industry, Nikhil has worked on more than 250 research assignments pertaining to chemicals, materials and energy sector. He has worked directly with about 35 reputed companies as lead consultant for plant expansion, product positioning, capacity factor analysis, new market/segment exploration, export market opportunity evaluation and sourcing strategies.