Additive manufacturing makes a strong impression
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is increasingly being used in advanced technology industries. This new technique offers a host of advantages, including design flexibility, lower cost and shorter lead-times. Today, it's even being used to make high-tech production parts for the aerospace industry.
A REVELATION... IN THREE DIMENSIONS
Saturday, June 24, 2017. The Paris Air Show is swarming with people today! Tens of thousands of trade and public visitors have come to admire the latest aircraft and the technologies behind them. Thibault, a young thirty-something who has been fascinated by aviation since he was a kid, never misses "Le Bourget", as the show is called in France.
While strolling through the main hall, he notices a poster at the Safran booth entitled "New Materials & Processes", just over what looks like a small jet engine. That awakens his curiosity so he moves closer to read the caption near the object: "APU (auxiliary power unit), made by 3D printing". One of the engineers at the booth notices the look of surprise on Thibault's face and starts a conversation.
A NEW PRODUCTION METHOD
“Hi, you seem to be fascinated by our APU… Do you know what that is? It's an APU, stands for auxiliary power unit, which is just a small turbine engine, generally in the rear of a plane, providing electrical, pneumatic or mechanical power, depending on what the plane needs, and mainly on the ground."
Thibault nods his head, answering,
“Yes, I know all that, but is it really made with a 3D printer, or does that refer to the model?"
The engineer puts his hand on the turbine, saying,
“Yes, this one's a model, but the one next to it, the Saphir 4.2 APU, is made of nothing but 3D printed parts, a process we also call additive manufacturing."
" You mean that APU is 3D printed and that it really works?" says an astonished Thibault. "It's used on real airplanes?"
“Yes, 3D printed parts will be gradually introduced into our engines," answers the engineer. "But first they have to be certified for flight, and that's where we stand today. 3D printing is no longer just a great tool for fast prototyping. Today, it's also an increasingly widespread production method."
The engineer invites the young man to take a seat so they can continue their conversation, saying,
“3D printing is not just a new way of producing aircraft parts, but is also an integral part of the design process."
Thibault continues with a smile,
“When I think that, just a week ago I saw a 3D printing demonstration in a big department store, and they produced my bust from a 3D scanned photo… I thought it was just a gadget. I didn't imagine that this technology was already being used in industry, especially in the aircraft industry. But what's the actual advantage in using this method to make such sophisticated parts?"
The engineer picks up the object and shows it to Thibault.
“For a given quality and strength, it's faster to produce. On this new APU, for instance, we were able to reduce the number of parts that had to be assembled, and even decrease their weight. Some parts are half the weight of those made with a conventional production process. Furthermore, the 3D printing process allows us to make certain single-piece assemblies in complex shapes, instead of machining several parts and assembling them."
A light bulb comes on over Thibault's head…
“If I understand right, this production process is less expensive, right?"
"Exactly. And whether we're making development parts for testing or production-standard parts, they offer the performance we want. For engineers like me, it also allows us to explore new possibilities, especially those requiring new shapes. These technologies are evolving so quickly that if you come to our booth at the next air show in 2019, you'll see some even more spectacular applications."
Thibault thanks the Safran engineer for his explanations, as he begins to imagine all the objects that could be created using this revolutionary technology. He even begins to dream of an entirely 3D-printed airplane – and that could well become a reality in a few short years. Who knows?