Airbus and its subsidiary APWorks, in collaboration with Autodesk-owned architecture firm The Living, has started 3D printing the world’s largest metal 3D printed airplane part. The jet partition, 3D printed in a high-tech alloy called “Scalmalloy”, is 45% lighter than current partitions.
Next time you travel by airplane, chances are you’ll be reading the in-flight magazine, looking down at the clouds from a tiny round window, or simply falling asleep. The seemingly unremarkable partition between the seating area and the galley will probably be the last thing to catch your eye. Surprisingly though, this part of the plane is actually incredibly important. Perhaps not as important as the wings, engine or pilot, but important because it usually houses the jump-seats used by cabin crew during takeoff and landing. Because of this, the partition needs to be very strong, which often makes it heavy—an undesirable characteristic for any airplane part.
In December 2015, Airbus revealed designs for a totally revamped 3D printed partition, which would be used in its Airbus A320 aircraft. The "bionic” partition, 45% (30kg) lighter than its traditionally manufactured predecessor, has now been 3D printed for testing, with the contributing companies offering further insights into the design process behind the giant 3D printed component.
Dispensing with much of the material, weight and bulk of previous designs, the 3D printed partition represents a groundbreaking development in an industry where less weight means less fuel consumption, which in turn means less expenditure. If the new component is implemented into each current A320 plane, Airbus could save up to 465,000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.
To create the most durable and lightweight design possible, the project team sought inspiration from nature. Bionics, which involves examining natural mechanics to see how they could be mimicked in technological devices, has been crucial in the production of the 3D printed component. The jet partition was created with custom algorithms, which generated a design that mimics cellular structure and bone growth. Airbus has also been exploring weight-saving aircraft structures based on the construction of super-strong water lilies, and torsion springs based on fish jaws.
The company has even created a Bionics Network, which connects 3D printing experts to bionics institutions worldwide. The research undertaken across the network will then be used to inform future designs. “It isn’t as simple as copying nature,” explains Peter Sander of Emerging Technologies and Concepts at Airbus. “Successful bionics depends on establishing a deep understanding of natural materials and then working out how to apply that knowledge in the industrial world.”
Other collaborators on the project have also been keeping a close eye on the natural world in order to optimize design. "The final design was the result of running 10,000 design options," says David Benjamin, a principal at The Living. "You could only do this with a certain level of computer power that was only available recently."
”We're not only creating unique forms through computing to test biologically-based designs, we're doing things with a variety of technologies that couldn't be done five years ago," added Benjamin. "The project incorporated a lot of ideas at the right time to become viable and help solve an urgent problem.”
The groundbreaking project wasn’t all about studying bones and fishes, however. Airbus and Autodesk utilized a special alloy to create the 3D printed partition. “Scalmalloy”, designed specifically for 3D printing, can undergo significant stress and stretching before breaking. The 3D printed partition will be the first Scalmalloy component to be used on an aircraft. “Combining the benefits of metallic 3D printing with new materials like Scalmalloy can greatly expand the possibilities for modern components, said Joachim Zettler, Managing Director at Airbus APWorks. “In the bionic partition, Scalmalloy is proving its power for the aerospace sector.”
"From my point of view, there's no limit of creative things we can do as designers, and this technology just gives us more tools and options," Benjamin says. "I won't ever be beholden to what the computer creates, but it'll be able to provide me more intelligent options and ideas."
The 3D printed bionic partition is currently undergoing 16G crash testing, before it can be certified for use on the current fleet of A320 planes. At some point in 2016, the component will be used on an A320 test flight.