The road to 3D printed, safety-critical flying parts is a long and intricate one, however the benefits on the horizon are enough to justify years and years of man-hours in research and testing. Eventually, even the most complex projects reach a moment when they repay for all the efforts. The fully 3D printed hydraulic spoiler manifold that on March 30th flew on Airbus’ Number 1 A380 is one of those moments. Peter Sander, VP and Head of the Emerging Technologies & Concepts Germany – one of the key figures behind it – reveals what this means for AM and for the aerospace industry as whole in this exclusive interview.
Can you tell us more details about how this project began?
“The AM hydraulic manifold was first envisioned as far back as 2007, when German government funding enabled Chemnitz University of Technology and the LIEBHERR Group to begin working on it. In 2010 we reached the first milestone when it was established that it was actually possible to do it. That is when I was invited to participate.”
What does this component do exactly?
“The spoiler actuator is a safety-critical part. It is used to control the air break, or spoiler. It is a very complex part and the point is that – over the past seven years – we were able to design it, produce it and validate it to a stage where we are really allowed to fly with it. This is the very first time a hydraulic component flies on a commercial aircraft.”
What are the main benefits of the AM design?
“The final design has a Ti64 SLM 3D printed housing with elements that are directly screwed on. The first and primary benefit is that it is 35% lighter than the original part. Secondary benefits include the fact that we are able to reduce air resistance and thus optimize fuel-efficiency. Finally we were able to optimize the efficiency of the hydraulic systems. This results in less heat being generated, less noise and also lower hydraulic power requirements.”
Which are the next steps for this part’s evolution?
“Last year we began thinking about how to continue to evolve this project. We have now obtained a ‘clean-sheet design’ that is no longer a one-to-one exchangeable. The next step is to rethink completely the hydraulic systems fully integrating for examples pipes like in an electronic multy layer technology in order to simplify the complex assembly process. This will be the single biggest opportunity in the future.”
What will it take to see parts like this go into serial AM production?
“LIEBHERR is the Airbus Tier 1 supplier that delivered these units to airbus at the end of last year. The experts at LIEBHERR have explained that they already have several of these hydraulic components in mind and that they are working on the first tests. Their stated objective, now that we have the proof of concept is to establish an AM factory to work on serial production in the near future.”
Do you feel that AM for serial production is already a cost efficient approach?
“Yes and it has already been demonstrated by our fully owned subsidiary at Premium Aerotech. They launched last year and have already begun production of serial parts in their AM factory, delivering the first parts.”
Which are the biggest challenges you’ve had to overcome?
“The research and testing phase is of course extremely long. In order to validate a part up to a stage that you are able to fly it, a part like such as the manifold – even if it was produced by traditional manufacturing – has to be tested over 12 million cycles. This mean that our final product went on a test bench with all the parts screwed on and then completed 12 million movements for the spoiler. Then it was installed on our own A380 aircraft number one to fly on March 30th. On the following day it flew again and it is still installed.”
What about the other AM projects you have worked one, when will they be ready to go into production?
“We are working with authorities to validate our 2014 bionic cabin bracket for use in commercial aviation. The parts have been further topologically optimized and will be manufactured by Premium Aerotech by DED technology as serial products for the new A350. We have over 15 years of experience working with DED technology however now we are using it to build parts that are topologically optimized.”
Do you feel that recent advancements in software are fully supporting this evolution in manufacturing?
“Software has made some significant steps. In particular the new MyShape design tool recently introduced by Dassault Systemes for topology optimization is already fully available and we have begun retraining our first 100 engineers to implement it. Autodesk is also coming along with its project Dreamcatcher generative design project, which is not yet ready for implementation but promises to bring great benefits in terms of efficiency.”
What about AM hardware, are you satisfied by recent progress?
“I started in 2012 with SLM, Concept Laser and EOS at Laser Center North. All these systems has one 250 Watt laser. Since then machines have evolved in terms of size and number of lasers, almost doubling their capabilities year on year. Clearly every new machine needs to be understood and qualified and this is very complex, especially in terms of managing multiple lasers inside the build chamber. But the general trend is very good. Today there are some 200.000 industrial CNC mills sold yearly worldwide. If we can show that AM is more efficient, eventually a big part of those will become AM systems.”