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Airbus has produced more than 1000 flight parts on its Stratasys FDM 3D Production Systems for use in the first-of-type A350 XWB aircraft. (To view additional images, click the arrow at top right of image.)

3D-printed parts fly on Airbus A350 XWB and ULA rockets

Additive manufacturing (AM) is making significant headway in aerospace production programs, as evidenced by recent announcements that Airbus and rocket manufacturer United Launch Alliance (ULA) both are—or soon will be—flying aircraft that incorporate 3D-printed parts enabled by Stratasys.

The AM solutions provider announced in May that Airbus has produced more than 1000 flight parts on its Stratasys FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling) 3D Production Systems for use in the A350 XWB aircraft, delivered in December 2014. Airbus chose to replace certain traditionally manufactured parts—lightly- or non-loaded interior components, according to a Stratasys spokesperson—with the 3D-printed ones in an effort to increase supply chain flexibility, which the company achieved while meeting its delivery commitment.

Airbus initiated development and certification of 3D printing with Stratasys in 2013 as a schedule risk reduction activity.

“With a digital file as the basis for automated production, wherever you have the appropriate, qualified machine to produce the part, you can,” Scott Sevcik, Stratasys’ Aerospace & Defense Business Development Manager, shared with Aerospace Engineering. “This shifts the make-buy decision out of the development phase, and can be a decision made based on the needs of the specific procurement rather than a design choice for the life of the program...Also, because you are producing a part without tooling, changes to the part can occur without involving a change to tooling, which can take weeks or months out of the procurement cycle. So you have more flexibility in where and how you produce the parts, and the shorter change cycle enables flexibility to improve designs over time with less impact.”

The parts are 3D-printed using ULTEM 9085 resin for FDM, which is certified to an Airbus material specification. ULTEM 9085 thermoplastic provides high strength-to-weight ratio and is FST (flame, smoke, and toxicity) compliant for aircraft interior applications. The process enables Airbus to manufacture lighter weight parts while “substantially reducing” production time and manufacturing costs.

“Additive manufacturing also greatly improves the buy-to-fly ratio as significantly less material is wasted than with conventional manufacturing methods,” said Dan Yalon, Executive Vice President, Business Development, Marketing & Vertical Solutions for Stratasys. “Stratasys is looking forward to bringing these and other advantages to its collaboration with Airbus and to being part of Airbus’ Factory of the Future initiative.”

Airbus provides insight into how additive manufacturing, in general, will impact its business in the coming years in this video: The narrator states in the video that “in the long term, 3D printing could reduce weight on each aircraft by more than a ton.”

ULA uses 3D printing to produce flight-ready parts for its launch vehicles, which cost at the lower end about $165 million and are used to propel into space satellites that can weigh more than 60,000 lb. The company makes launch vehicles for NASA, the U.S. Air Force, and commercial satellites.

ULA progressed its use of 3D printing technology from prototyping to tooling and then to flight hardware production. After acquiring two Fortus 900mc 3D Production Systems from Stratasys, the company began updating the environmental control system (ECS) duct on the Atlas V, which is expected to launch with the new 3D component in 2016. The ECS duct delivers nitrogen to electronic components within the rocket booster.

Engineers consolidated the number of parts for the ECS duct assembly from 140 to 16 parts by using FDM technology to modify the design. This “significantly reduces” installation time and results in a 57% part-cost reduction, the company claims.

“ULTEM 9085 has great strength properties over a wide temperature range,” said Greg Arend, Program Manager for Additive Manufacturing at ULA. “We have done testing to show that it is very capable of withstanding temperatures from cryogenic all the way up to extreme heat. And it’s tough enough to handle the vibration and stress of lift off and flight.”

ULA plans to increase the quantity of 3D-printed parts to more than 100 on the next-generation rocket.

“In a lot of cases, because we do have the ability to use this high-strength thermoplastic, we’re actually replacing a lot of metallic applications with plastic applications because it’s substantially less expensive,” said Andrea Casias, Materials Process Engineer at ULA.

“We see somewhat of an exponential growth in the utility of 3D printing for flight applications on our current vehicles,” added Arend. “And we intend to use it heavily with our Vulcan rocket.”

The lower volume, higher complexity nature of the aerospace industry is an ideal fit for additive manufacturing, according to Stratasys’ Sevcik. “In early 2014, we were in discussion with two companies on certifying material for flight applications; today we’re talking to more than 10.

“The type of parts that can be printed will be driven by the type of materials we can offer,” he continued. “Right now, we’re limited to certain applications that aren’t heavily load bearing, but we are working with key customers in the aerospace industry to advance the technology even further. As we continue to improve the material and process offerings, we will be able to address more and more applications,” including structural and flight-critical content throughout the aircraft and engines.

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