3D printing for aircraft parts takes off at Lufthansa
(Credit: Lufthansa Group)

3D printing for aircraft parts takes off at Lufthansa

Lighter components make for more fuel-efficient aircraft. So could 3D printing hold the key to ‘lightweighting’ in the aviation sector? asks Jessica Twentyman.

Lufthansa Technik, the maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) division of German airline Lufthansa, has announced the opening of its new Additive Manufacturing Centre in Germany, dedicated to exploring the use of 3D printing in creating lightweight aircraft parts.

So-called ‘lightweighting’ is a big issue in the aviation industry. A lighter aircraft requires less fuel to make its journey, which has significant benefits when it comes to both cost and environmental impact.

According to Lufthansa Technik, 3D printing – sometimes referred to as additive manufacturing – isn’t just a matter of creating parts that weigh less. The technology also offers more freedom in designing parts and greater speed of manufacturing, too. This is a big advantage in low-volume manufacturing situations, where a prototype or a one-off part needs building.

The Lufthansa Technik Additive Manufacturing Centre in Hamburg is a “collaborative hub”, bringing together the competence and experience the company already has in 3D printing. The centre, it seems, opened earlier this year, but has only just been formally announced to the public.

“The aim is to increase the degree of maturity of the technologies and to develop products that are suitable for production,” explained Dr Aenne Koester, head of the new facility.

A joint team of Lufthansa Technik experts will work there alongside additive manufacturing specialists from numerous industry partners and research institutions, with a view to making 3D printing an integral element in aircraft design and manufacture.

On a mission in MRO

As an MRO provider, Lufthansa Technik looks after commercial aircraft belonging to a wide range of global airlines, including Qatar Airways, Jet Airways, United Airlines, and Korean Airlines.

With that in mind, a key focus for the AM Centre will be the use of 3D printing in repair processes. This still poses a challenge, according to the company, because standards for 3D-printed components in the aviation industry are still immature and under development.

With that in mind, an early partnership between Lufthansa Technik with Swiss industrial company Oerlikon focuses on understanding process repeatability – in other words, how can 3D printing be used to mass-produce parts that consistently meet the same standards for certification, for example? This partnership was announced back in July this year.

The partners have set up three identical 3D printers to produce a representative component in three separate locations: Oerlikon AM Charlotte (North Carolina, USA), Oerlikon AM Barleben (Germany), and Lufthansa Technik in Hamburg (Germany). The idea behind this ‘triple test’ is to dig down into the parameters that influence the performance of an AM-produced part and to establish methods and standards that deliver the certainty required when it comes to a part’s performance.

A particular focus, meanwhile, is highly stressed engine components, where Lufthansa Technik is aiming to use 3D printing in metals – and more specifically, nickel-based alloys. The company claims to be one of very few companies capable of using powder-bed fusion technology to replace lost material on a damaged part, such as an engine blade.

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Aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus also have extensive experiments in 3D printing underway.

Back in August, Boeing invested in high-speed metals 3D printing start-up Digital Alloys. The company claims it already has more than 60,000 3D-printed parts flying today on space, commercial, and defence craft.

And in April, Airbus announced that the first 3D-printed parts visible to passengers would soon be seen on Finnair A320s, in the form of spacer panels located in overhead compartments.

Elsewhere, Air New Zealand is partnering with Zenith Tecnica, an Auckland-based 3D titanium printing company to 3D-print metal aircraft parts using printers from Arcam, part of GE Additive and based in Sweden.

“Aircraft interiors are made up of tens of thousands of parts, and the ability to 3D print on demand lightweight parts we only require a small number of, rather than rely on traditional manufacturing methods is of huge benefit to our business, without compromising safety, strength or durability,” said Bruce Parton, who was chief operating officer of Air New Zealand until last month.

Etihad Airlines Engineering, meanwhile, has teamed up with Berlin-based 3D printing specialist BigRep to define a roadmap for the development of cabin interior parts for new Etihad aircraft, as well as for the retrofit market.

The partners have a particular focus on filling an important gap: the scarcity of high-performance materials for cabin interiors that are certified by both the EASA [European Aviation Safety Agency] and the US-based FAA [Federal Aviation Administration].

Jessica Twentyman is a journalist with a 20-year track record as both a writer and editor on national newspapers and IT trade titles. Her work focuses on how smart companies use technology to achieve real business results. She is a contributor to the Financial Times, The Economist and Computer Weekly, and Consulting Editor on Diginomica.com and I-CIO.com.