Seats in their upright position and cabin doors to manual!

Without a doubt, the aerospace industry is probably the biggest driver of additive manufacturing and innovations within it. Slated for being one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions, additive manufacturing offers opportunities to innovate around stronger and lighter structures. Composites and plastics additive manufacturing certainly have a role to play when it comes to building lighter, stronger cabin structures.

However, although additive manufacturing has clear advantages for the industry, materials and processes manufacturing for aerospace are stringently regulated and gaining approval and certification for not only resultant parts, but also the materials and manufacturing processes is expensive and time consuming.

Is there, then, still room for more traditional 3D printing processes? Ones that don’t necessarily meet the newest International Standards for Aerospace Quality Management Systems?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” …Because the science of keeping people comfortable and aeroplanes in the air, and ensuring the combination of both is efficient, will forever be an evolutionary one. And one that starts, like all flights, on the ground.

Concept Visualisation to Design Optimisation

In the last decade we’ve seen a paradigm shift in cabin design. For first class travellers, we’ve moved from wide, reclining seats to private cubicles with beds. For economy class, we’ve reconfigured seating so much, complaints of ‘seats have shrunk’ reverberate across the lands we fly above. More passengers equal more profit, of course.

The weight of hundreds of seats in an aeroplane will inevitably add to the efforts to get the whole structure airborne and will therefore be a significant contributor to CO2 emissions. 3D printing gives aircraft interior designers the opportunity to optimise design, not just of seats but also of the structures within them and the space around them. An exact replica of a design in model format also has a far greater impact on stakeholders than a design seen on a computer screen.

The speed at which concepts can be created using 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies is only ever an advantage in terms of cost and supply chain enhancement. For example, 3D printed components can be used as placeholders while real parts are being created, allowing assembly to continue.

3D printing doesn’t stop at the prototyping. It can be used to create tools and master patterns for more traditionally produced components quickly and cost-effectively. It can be used to create soft jaws to hold and protect items in the assembly process. And it can be used to create gauges, jigs and fixtures essential for quality control in the manufacturing process.

Polymer and Composite 3D Printing Options

Given the stringent requirements for standards compliance in the aerospace sector, it seems there are few opportunities for 3D printing service providers without metal printing technology to be part of the aerospace race.

Cabin design, however, is not, at the prototyping phase, necessarily something that requires regulation. And, 3D printing in composites and plastics have an enormous potential to contribute to cabin design.

Stereolithography (SLA), for example, will produce smooth, high detail scale models and actual size models of aerospace designs. Find a large enough 3D printer with a very high resolution, such as the NEO 800 SLA machine, and you could be printing everything from chair backs to partitions. Engineering grade materials such as SOMOS EvoLVe 128 and WaterShed XC11122 offer polished white and clear surfaces (respectively) with exceptional detailing.

3D Printing Solutions for the Aerospace Industry

EvoLVe 128 has been used successfully by aerospace design agencies such as Acro Aircraft Seating, Mirus Aircraft Seating and Design Q for cabin and seating concept visualisation. This white resin’s exceptionally smooth finish allows for larger pieces to be printed in very high resolution with intricate detailing. It’s a lightweight material with a look and feel that’s almost identical to finished traditional thermoplastics that can be painted or overlaid with other materials and used in snap-fit designs.

Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) uses a high-powered laser to fuse tiny particles of powdered nylon, sometimes incorporating glass or mineral particles, layer by layer. As it doesn’t require support structures during the build and resultant parts are chemical and heat resistant, SLS is an excellent solution for tough, functional structures such as small, complex clips and electrical connectors; as well as creating quick, cost effective tooling solutions, gauges and jigs.

Transcending the prototyping-production part divide, and in many instances complying with various aerospace flammability ratings, Carbon’s Digital Light Synthesis technology was designed with manufacture in mind. The process is ideal for printing smaller devices such as cocktail tray clips and hooks. Recent aerospace usage examples include NASA’s use of the CE 221, a cyanate ester resin, in a cold gas thruster system for a space launch. The high temperature resin held up to intense pressure, very low temperatures and prolonged periods of direct sun light.

3D Printing (Still) Paves the Way for the Future of Aerospace

In conclusion, while 3D printing and additive manufacturing in compliant materials have become the norm for designing, prototyping testing, tooling and even production, there remains a role for materials that have not necessarily made the grade in terms of compliance. These materials and processes will speed up the concept visualisation process; help achieve investment buy-in; improve assembly times by providing replicas of parts as fillers; and will even help with manufacture and quality control through the provision of tooling, jigs and fixtures.

Paragon Rapid Technologies provides aerospace designers and design engineers with access to quick, cost efficient, large scale additive manufacturing capabilities. Their 3D print capability is augmented with state-of-the-art CNC engineering facilities enabling creation of large tools and moulds, mould modifications, and larger gauges, jigs and fixtures.