The AM Applications Series: Interior Plane Parts

2019-06-05

Aya Bentur  

Airbus Materialise 3D Printed Panel

Continuing our new series, #AMapplications, this week we look at additively manufactured parts for the interiors of aircraft. While each post in the series zooms in on a specific in-use application that is additively manufactured, when it comes to the interior of an aircraft there are various applications. The common denominator is the specific standards derived from the conditions. This week we look at the needs of airplane interiors and how additive manufacturing (AM) addresses them.

Few and Many

The potential of AM for aircraft interiors stems from the contrast between the fact that on one hand planes are manufactured in small numbers, on the other hand, numerous people go through them on a regular basis. The interior of an aircraft is subject to extensive use, every seat belt, every hook that holds a tray is used repeatedly over the lifespan of the plane. So while planes are not mass produced, they require small-volume yet specialized production as well as constant maintenance and supply of spare parts. Therefore airlines are currently using additively manufactured parts for both interior spare parts and new parts in their newer planes. “Not only can’t we hold stock of every replacement part we might need, but we often only require a small number of units, which can be really expensive to produce using traditional manufacturing methods and can involve frustrating delays while a replacement part is delivered,” says Bruce Parton, Air New Zealand’s chief operations officer (below 3D printed cocktail tray – Air New Zealand). ATR Aircraft as well uses additively manufactured replacement parts for obsolete plastic parts in their cabin interiors. According to Stephane Marty, head of cabin design at ATR, using AM for aircraft interiors has proven to be cost-effective: “We can make a single part without having to launch the manufacture of a series of 200.”

3D Printed Cocktail Table Tray - Air New Zealand

Non-Critical yet Effective

Another factor that facilitates the adoption of AM, in this case, is that most interior parts are non-critical. While they do require a certification process regarding climate and stress durability, the process isn’t the same as certifying a critical part, such as engine components. Materialise, for example, manufactured the spacer panel (below and up top) for Airbus (Finnair), the panel aesthetically looks like any other part on the plane and is 15% lighter than traditionally manufactured equivalent parts. Certification-wise it is made of a flame retardant material and meets aerospace certification requirements. Like the panel, most AM parts are polymer components for cabin and cockpit applications such as air conditioning and heating, cable ducts, etc, yet there are also additively manufactured critical interior components such as the titanium latch shafts for Airbus and the titanium belt buckles (2nd below), both manufactured by EOS.

Airbus Materialise 3D Printed Panel - back

Lightweight Seat Belt Buckles - EOS  Additive Manufactured Titanium - Source - 3T RPD - The SAVING Project

Moving Forward

Planes are manufactured in small batches and built to last years. Naturally, flight culture and additional services change over the years and require adapting. It’s been years since smoking was permitted on planes, but the no smoking light can still be seen. Another example is the outdated entertainment interface – this is where AM comes in. Jetstar’s Airbus A330 fleet, for example, had the inflight entertainment interface located in the armrests replaced with a blank additively manufactured plate produced by Satair. On top of that, airline companies wish to set themselves apart from their competitors, they want to project a certain image, therefore they’re looking for customizing parts visible to their customers, using textures or logos, which are easily customized using AM. While visual branding is part of differentiating a brand, offering a differentiated experience can have a great impact in today’s consumer culture. A brand-specific experience and customization per customer are important for a brands reputation, again, ideal for AM production.

The Holy Grail

EOS 3D Printed Air ducts for laminar flow Material- PA 2200

According to Airbus, “Weight reduction is the holy grail of aerospace engineering: every kilogram saved prevents 25 tons of CO2 emissions during the lifespan of an aircraft.” Ducting, vents, cable management, electrical housings, cover, caps, bins, dividers, panels for sidewalls and ceilings,  – the applications are many, and most not publicized, but they do add up and can lead to significant weight reduction (above air duct manufactured by EOS). Back in 2015 Boeing spokesman Nathan Hulings said: “We have approximately 300 different part numbers on 10 different aircraft production programs, which amounts to more than 20,000 non-metallic additive manufactured parts that are on vehicles that we have delivered to our customers.” Last year Boeing stated that more than 60,000 additively manufactured parts are already flying across Boeing’s commercial, space and defense product ranges – that’s a growth of 300% over 3 years.

So next time you board a plane, take a look around you – there are probably AM parts that you’ve never noticed before.

It’s always exciting to see new applications for AM, but it’s even more exciting to see them mature into industrialized processes and business models. Tell us about the AM applications you encountered, we’ll try to feature them here and follow us for more #AMapplications. For more insights and information follow us on LinkedIn or subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates.

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