Mar 3, 2017 | By Benedict

Aerosud and the CSIR National Laser Centre, makers of South Africa’s giant Aeroswift titanium SLM 3D printer, are in talks with Airbus and Boeing about the possibility of 3D printing aircraft parts. The Aeroswift research project is backed by the South African government, and will create local jobs.

Team Aeroswift

After 3D printing three aircraft demonstrator parts last year, it seems that South Africa’s monstrous Aeroswift 3D printer is now set for commercial use—beginning 2019, if reports are to be believed. Those three demonstrator parts, a pilot’s throttle lever, a condition lever grip, and a fuel tank pylon bracket, were printed in titanium using the Aeroswift, which is described as the world’s largest 3D printer for the laser melting of titanium. The success of these 3D printed aircraft parts has prompted aerospace giants Airbus and Boeing to invite the South African researchers to the negotiating table.

Additive manufacturing titanium parts allows manufacturers in a number of industries to replace heavier aluminum components with much lighter ones—saving them money at the same time. And when those advantages are coupled with the sheer size of the Aeroswift 3D printer (200 cm x 60 cm x 60 cm), the opportunity for next-generation manufacturing is huge. Designed specifically for aircraft construction, the Aeroswift 3D printer is now being targeted by Airbus (which has been involved with the project from the start) and Boeing, both of which have emphasized their willingness to adopt additive manufacturing technologies in recent years.

According to Simon Ward, Airbus's vice president for international cooperation in Toulouse, Airbus is currently speaking with the Aeroswift team and the South African government to ensure that its involvement will be profitable—both for itself and for local South Africans, who have been promised job opportunities when the project starts commercial operations. “How best to commercialize the process is a discussion we are currently having with the Aeroswift partners and relevant government agencies,” Ward said. Airbus has also been providing Aerosud with  consulting, benchmark information, and advice.

Airbus could use the Aeroswift 3D printer to fabricate titanium aircraft parts

Aeroswift developers say that South Africa is perfectly placed to operate a serious titanium 3D printing enterprise, since the country ranks fourth in the world for titanium reserves. Just as important for the project’s success, however, is the 3D printer itself: “Our machine is unique and the only one in the world,” said Hardus Greyling, Aeroswift's contract coordinator. “We have developed new technologies and patents which allows us to upscale the additive process to go significantly faster and significantly larger than other systems.” Greyling says Aeroswift can print up to 10 times faster than other SLM 3D printers.

An announcement from the Aeroswift camp that some of its 3D printed parts would be making test flights this year was received positively by the industry. Terry Wohlers of Wohlers Associates told Reuters: “It looks like the people at Aerosud and CSIR are on track and making very good progress toward carving out a slice of what is set to become a 3D printing market valued at tens of billions of dollars.”

As of 2016, the South African government and its Department of Science and Technology had invested R107m ($8m) in the Aeroswift project, as it looks to position itself as a go-to destination for 3D printed aerospace parts. Amazingly, the Aeroswift may not even be the largest 3D printer in the country (when non-metal printers are taken into account). That honor (probably) goes to the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), whose staff and students have built a five-meter-tall FDM 3D printer for printing wind turbine blades.

NMMU staff and students with their giant FDM 3D printer

“These printers are normally used to print tiny things, such as parts required in the medical field, but we wanted to print wind turbine blades in a quick way,” said Professor Russell Phillips of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “What is novel about this printer is its ability to print enormous structures.” Phillips added that the 3D printer, which has already printed structures almost five meters in length, could also be used to build house.

Who knows, with Aeroswift 3D printing propellor blades and NMMU 3D printing turbine blades, perhaps the two camps will share some tips with one another.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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