3D printer makes parts for airliner

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Photo: BAE Systems

A small plastic window part produced on a 3D printer will be installed in BAe 146 airliners after it received Form 1 certification approval from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

BAE Systems created the small window pipe, which is designed to keep cabin windows from misting up, after original parts became unavailable.

In an effort to avoid new tooling costs and extended lead times, BAE turned to a commercial 3D printing supplier that was able to develop working examples of the part in less than two weeks.

According to Philip Beard, Structures Support Manager at BAE Systems Regional Aircraft, not only was using a 3D printer quicker – it was also much cheaper – with “the actual parts (costing) 60 per cent less than the traditional method”.

It comes as little surprise then, that BAE Systems, one of the world’s largest defence contractors, is now considering the technology’s wider application in aviation manufacturing. “Having achieved this first breakthrough on the BAe 146 window breather pipe, we are now looking at a range of other 3D printing opportunities to provide replacement parts across several different commercial aircraft types,” says Beard.

“This technology offers a potential solution for aircraft parts that are prone to obsolescence, where tooling is unavailable, for quick turnarounds and also for small batch production. It may not be the solution for every part, but where appropriate, it provides a faster route from design to completed parts meaning operators get the parts cheaper and quicker” he said.

Although the window pipe is tiny in comparison to other more substantial parts on an aircraft, its production is significant. 3D printing is already being used to produce metal components for the RAF’s Tornado fighter jets, with in-flight testing already complete.

As the following video demonstrates, 3D printing has seemingly endless applications and will continue to evolve, playing a growing role not only for aviation, but in the wider manufacturing industry.

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) is currently examining the potential impacts and effects of 3D printing on the aviation industry and the safety and regulatory environment.

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