Aug 16, 2016 | By Alec

The aviation industry is a strange place for several reasons, but perhaps most unusual is the fact that it largely relies on ‘old-fashioned’ technology. While everything in the automotive world needs to be better and faster and more streamlined, 65 percent of all commercial airliners are Boeing 737 and the Airbus A320 models which have been around for ages: since the 1960s and the 1980s, respectively. While the designs and manufacturing processes have improved over the years, many of the core components and equipment have stayed the same for at least three decades. Maintenance, however, has continued to create huge costs and that’s why a twelve prominent aviation specialists, including Boeing and Lufthansa, joined forces in the RepAIR consortium to streamline that process. Their solution? 3D printing.

It’s a challenge that can be traced back to these successful aircraft designs that have continued to reign supreme. As a result, the repair and maintenance procedures are all based on the initial OEM designs, which are costly and require huge stocks. In fact, modern maintenance is mainly reactive or preventive, and most components are part of a Line Replaceable Unit (LRU). Should one failure occur, the whole LR is replaced and inspected by specialists. More often than not, the parts are repaired and reused elsewhere – creating a hugely complex logistic process. Aside from design optimization and stock reduction, durability, repair expenses and a simplified logistical process are thus also obvious targets for 3D printing.

That is, in a nutshell, the main goal of this RepAIR consortium, which just concluded its work. Founded three years ago with a $6.4 million total budget (with funds coming from the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Program), it brought together specialists from various major aircraft companies, as well as researchers from various universities and 3D printing specialists from SLM Solutions – one of the rising stars of metal 3D printing. Cranfield University received $1 million of those funds to focus on focused its efforts on health condition monitoring, repair and manufacturing through 3D printing, and part certification.

As the project leaders stated at the time of its launch, RepAIR aimed to study on-site maintenance and repair procedures with the goal of integrating direct digital manufacturing. “The main objective of RepAIR is to shift the make-or-buy decision towards the ‘make’ decision by reducing the cost of remaking and repairing spare parts, resulting in more efficient maintenance operations. A crucial advantage of this technology is the flexible availability (even at the gate) allowing on-time maintenance. Personnel cost can also be reduced thanks to a higher level of automation and shorter production times,” they say.

What’s more, they are fully convinced of the potential of 3D printing. In part, it simply has the power significantly reduce storage costs. “As only the raw material needs to be stored, instead of having to have in stock up to 3.6 million spare parts for the multitude of airplanes and varieties of aircraft manufacturers, less capital is locked up. Additionally, hardly any energy-intensive produced raw material will be wasted or destroyed, but will be used optimally,” they say. “When looking ahead, with the aid of AM technology, it will be possible to shorten the entire spare parts supply chain to sending an e-mail. The benefit for all those involved, including the environment, is obvious. New business models will become sustainable.”

The three-year project has been concluded now, with the final RepAIR report available here. As Cranfield University engineer Suresh Perinpanayagam revealed, their work especially highlighted several 3D printing challenges and how the technology can have a huge impact on the aviation industry. Aside from major cost-savings, they also found that 3D printing can significantly reduce turnaround times and schedule interruptions, and result in less scrap wastage.

Under this proposed system involving 3D printing, flaws can be detected by the Integrated Vehicle Health Management (IVHM), which triggers a repair decision. If 3D printing is needed, a part can be repaired through 3D printing on-site – without the need for hugely complex logistic actions. Even if 3D printing is only available in certain hubs, the IVHM system can plan maintenance there.

Under this health monitoring system proposed by RepAIR, failures can be detected by using a complex physics-based model which requires no additional sensors or hardware. The system simply accesses aircraft data such as speed, load, temperature and calculates friction. If a threshold is reached, a failure alarm is triggered. The system subsequently communicates the failure status and identifiers to the CAMO (Continuous Airworthiness Management Organization) and the pilot.

While the extent of these savings will only become apparent once the RepAIR findings are implemented, the consortium itself is optimistic. With an eye on 2020, they believe that MRO costs for complex spare parts can be reduced by 30 percent and turnaround time by 20 percent. 3D printing can also increase the automation level for spare parts production by 20 percent, while the entire maintenance process can become much cleaner as well. In fact, wastage and the use of toxic chemicals can be reduced by up to 80 percent, while part weight will be reduced by 20 percent – thus reducing a plane’s carbon footprint. Inspection times, finally, can be reduced by 30 percent. 3D printing can, in short, make a huge financial difference.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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