Dec 17, 2015 | By Alec

While a number of airplane manufacturers are already using 3D printing technology for prototyping and even making engine parts, as Airbus recently did, one Chinese airline reminds us that basic 3D printing can also be very useful for cabin parts. China Eastern Airlines Technology Co., Ltd. has been using the technology to save significant costs on simple cabin parts from brackets to armrests and toilet covers, and have been able to greatly increase the cost efficiency of their own aviation maintenance centers because of it.

While China Eastern Airlines itself has been an established airline giant for years, this particular section of their business is very young. China Eastern Airlines Technology, the aviation maintenance enterprise of the airline has only been founded in late 2014. This makes China Eastern Airlines the first Chinese airline with its own airplane maintenance center, and has been aiming to make it as efficient as possible, which also means making as many part replacements itself. In fact, the goal is to turn the maintenance center in a value creation center that not just saves costs, but also reduces operational risks.

Their 3D printing lab.

And this is where 3D printing comes in, which is the hottest technology at Eastern Airlines right now. The issue they have is this: an airplane is filled with countless of parts, but the batches for each of these is very small. That means incurring significant relative costs with traditional part vendors, as they need so many small batches of parts. The scale of the operation is thus effectively pushing up prices. So what can you do? Well, Eastern Airlines Technology established its very own additive manufacturing laboratory, as they explain. This center is responsible for the development of 3D printing part solutions, with the initial focus being on the cabin. The lab team began analyzing the characteristics and structure of the countless plastic parts used and found that 3D printing could definitely offer new opportunities.

3D printed cabin parts.

Of course, PLA or ABS isn’t exactly suitable as these plastic parts still need to be able to withstand significant use and pressures, and be as flame retardant as possible in compliance with requirements from the Chinese Department of Civil Aviation. The team therefore set out the develop materials that meet these requirements while being easily 3D printed, and after two months of work they had a breakthrough. In February of this year they developed CAR25, a fully non-metallic 3D printable material that ticks all the boxes and, most importantly, is flame retardant.

They have since began widely implementing this 3D printable material for the production of cabin parts, and the cost efficiency of this material is now finally becoming apparent. Those results are excellent as many parts can now be manufactured at a fraction of the original price. Seat signage, for example, which quickly cost thousands of dollars to manufacture (and take months to order) when relying on traditional manufacturing channels, can now be 3D printed on-site within a day, costing less than $100 each. The toilet seat cover, arguably the most important part of any plane, shows similar results. Previously costing more than 40,000 yuan ($6,000 USD) each, they can now be made for less than a tenth of that cost. The production cost of the on-board iPad holder, meanwhile, was reduced by 95%, while a series of brackets originally costing 10,000 yuan ($1500) now cost as little as 300 yuan ($46).

In short, 3D printing on-site is thus enabling China Eastern Airlines to make production and airplane maintenance far cheaper and more efficient. It also shows exactly how this technology can be of added value when used at the right scale. China Eastern Airlines, meanwhile, is completely convinced of what it brings to the table, and has already announced that they are planning to further improve and expand on their 3D printing activities, to include 3D scanning as well. While objects are currently developed in CAD software, they believe that scanning existing parts for 3D printing will even further reduce production time.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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