PARIS (Reuters) - Aerospace supplier Premium Aerotec is set to start regular 3D printing of a further 40 parts for Airbus's A350 jet this year after grappling with the challenges of a technology that is seen as the next big thing for the aerospace industry.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, involves building up layers of material to create a part, resulting in less waste and weight. It also makes it easier to create parts from materials that are traditionally difficult to shape, such as titanium.
But manufacturers are having to overcome a variety of challenges, such as bringing down costs and winning over regulators, to turn potential into profits.
"It is nice to print, it's fancy, it's beautiful, but there are three conditions - it has to be cheaper, lighter, and faster," Premium Aerotec CEO Thomas Ehm told Reuters at the Paris Airshow.
Premium Aerotec has set up a team of five people to screen the suitability of its thousands of parts for the 3D printing process, with the focus on those criteria.
The German company, which specialises in metal and carbon fibre composite aircraft structures, has identified 50 titanium parts for the A350 plane that it plans to print, with 10 of those already in serial production using the process. It also already prints six components for the refuelling system of the A400M military transporter.
Titanium is currently the only material where 3D printing offers a cost advantage, Ehm said, because it is traditionally expensive to buy and hard to machine.
Around 30 percent of the costs of production using the new technology is the printing itself, Ehm said, while the rest is in preparing and finishing the part. For example, supports are needed to hold up the component while it is being printed, which then have to be cut off afterwards.
The company currently uses printers made by Concept Laser and EOS and has invested 15-20 million euros so far at its site in Varel, northern Germany.
Premium Aerotec is also working with Daimler (DAIGn.DE) on a project to explore whether the costs of printing can be brought down enough to make it viable for aluminium parts, which Ehm said would be game-changing for the industry.
"This is when (our) factory with the five or six machines will change to a big hangar with 100 machines," he said.
Another challenge is achieving certification for parts created using new processes or materials for the aerospace industry, where demands are stringent.
"With all the new technology and ideas, the manufacturers, designers and inventors have to pinch themselves and ask how long is it going to take to get into a reliable manufacturing and certified situation," Phil Seymour, CEO of aviation consultants IBA told Reuters.
One issue with the certification of 3D printed parts is making sure each one has the same shape and the same qualities.
German engine maker MTU Aero Engines (MTXGn.DE), which also uses printers from EOS, said the layers involved increased the risk of the part failing. It currently prints one part and is planning a further six.
"One-third of parts could be 3D printed, but it will take time," CEO Reiner Winkler said at the air show.
After taking the initial individual 3D printed parts to the authorities, Ehm said Premium Aerotec was now close to getting certification for the process as a whole, which would allow it to print parts.
Reporting by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Mark Potter