January is the time of the year where we make forecasts on what is going to happen. As I have written before, at an industrial level, this is going to be the year where we are going to see the first examples of fully automated additive factories actually go beyond case studies and into widespread implementation. This is happening primarily because – after dental, medical and jewelry – now the aerospace industry is beginning to use ALM (Additive Layer Manufacturing) to make many, serial, final parts.
This is the general impression we get, but this sounds a lot more real when the people who are actually making this happen speak about it. I recently contacted one of the people that can offer the most accurate and most up-to-date description of the ALM scenario in the aerospace industry: Peter Sander, Head of Emerging Technologies & Concepts at Airbus. Mr Sander confirmed that the company is now on “readiness level 6 for ALM industrialization”. He was also kind enough to take the time to explain exactly what this means, and what still needs to happen for additive factories to become a common reality.
Mr Sander’s work on ALM at Airbus began five years ago. With responsibility for the ALM RT Strategy he is part of the Airbus ALM Platform-Team and has carried out over 120 projects sincel, in order to establish case studies which would confirm the need and advantages of ALM processes in Aerospace. For this, he has also actively collaborated with the Helicopter & Space divisions of the Airbus Group.
While most agree that metal will give rise to AM factories, the first material to be used for serial production of end use parts at Airbus has been plastic, produced Stratasys FDM systems. There are already several hundred parts flying on the Airbus A350 fleet. Another currently implemented approach – which also relies on Stratasys FDM – is that of using 3D printing for end use, replacement parts.
The next step is metal. “We now also are now on technology readiness level 6 for ALM on titanium metal parts flying, which means we are ready for industrialization,” Mr Sander says. “We begin with the bionic bracket which we developed in a joint project with Lazer Zentrum North. We have been working on this for 5 years and, this year, we are going to start serial production with this kind of parts.”
This is big enough news to start the year off with a bang for ALM, but it’s not nearly all that’s in store from Airbus. The first parts are only going to be in titanium, as these are the most expensive parts and the ones where material reduction plays a major role. Soon after that, roughly by the end of 2017, Airbus is going to start additively manufacturing parts in stainless steel and aluminum, as well.
How is this going to happen? In the beginning, through a mix of in-house production (in three European plants in Germany, UK and France) and reliance on external, dedicated 3D printing factories. One of these is Premium Aerotec (PAG), which is set to open its first ALM Factory – with four installed machines – in the North of Germany.
As Mr Sander has explained in the many conferences which he holds to raise awareness on ALM practices in the higher industrial sphere, Airbus currently relies primarily on Concept Laser, SLM Solutions, and EOS metal 3D printers. These are all laser powered, powder bed systems (SLM). The UK division, however, has also been working with Arcam’s EBM process to manufacture larger and more solid parts.
Airbus is also working with DED/Laser Cladding technologies in order to perform faster manufacturing, with an up to 1 Kg per hour deposition rate. However these technologies are mostly focused on cost and time reduction, rather than lightweight design, which undoubtedly is ALM’s biggest promise for the aerospace industry.
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