Mar. 6, 2015 | By Simon

Among other industries that have success in converting traditional manufacturing processes over to additive manufacturing processes has unsurprisingly been the aerospace industry.  Due to the low-cost and custom manufacturing nature of additive manufacturing, companies have been able to reduce material costs, decrease labor content and increase the availability of parts at point of use.  All of these factors working in unison from a single source has had a dramatic impact over the past few years and the use of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry will only become more prevalent in the future.

A great and recent example of how additive manufacturing has aided in the airplane design and fabrication process is in the development of a custom airplane that was designed to be a “flying hospital”.

Orbis, a medical organization dedicated to providing ophthalmic training to international communities, has been using airplanes as training facilities and even consider the aircraft as a hospital.  The organization even goes so far as to name their airborne facilities Flying Eye Hospitals.  

As an organization dedicated to ophthalmic training, their mission is to aid over 39 million people around the globe who suffer from unnecessary blindness that can be cured and prevented with proper medical care.  The organization utilizes the airborne hospitals to aid and instruct as many people as possible - with the entire facilities and all equipment stored aboard the aircraft.    

Orbis recently teamed up with the aerospace company Structural Integrity Engineering (SIE) and 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys to develop an aircraft conversion for their latest facility.  While Stratasys was able to assist in using their technologies, Structural Integrity Engineering used their skill of redesigning and rebuiliding existing aircraft to help the organization develop their new Flying Eye Hospital.

Of course, rebuilding a stripped-down airplane from scratch isn’t without its own specific challenges - especially when it’s being converted into a flying hospital.

Among other challenges that Orbis and Structural Integrity Engineering were met with was an air duct that was required to meet all FAA requirements but also conform to the curvatures of the update aircraft conversion.  While traditional air ducts are made from fiberglass, Structural Integrity Engineering chose to go with additive manufacturing with aid from Stratasys for their final design.      

“3D printing processes are very viable for complex fitting and design, which would normally cost quite a bit if machined,” said Mark Curran, a Senior Engineer at SIE.

After further discussing their needs with Jesse Marin, and engineer at Stratatsys, Curran ultimately discovered that there was an FAA-compliant material - ULTEM 9085 - for smoke and burn regulations that would work for the air duct design.  

“We received samples of the material, ULTEM 9085, and did secondary burn tests. To pass, the samples have to extinguish by themselves within a certain amount of time. The ULTEM pieces passed the test,” added Curran.  

The ULTEM material, which is a thermoplastic designed for harsh environments, has previously been used for automobiles, industrial equipment and other aircraft designs.  

Curran and team decided to use the material to fabricate the air ducts using the Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) 3D printing process.  In contrast, if Curran had decided to use traditional fiberglass manufacturing techniques to create the air duct, him and his team would have had to machine a mold and use a lay-up process that would have taken weeks.  By using 3D printing, the process only took a few days and delivered a comparable product at a fraction of the cost.  

“We were able to design mounting feature attachment fittings into the actual part. The mounting features are usually separate. By designing them into the FDM ULTEM component, we were able to reduce our overall part count, which is always a good thing,” Curran said.

Of course even though a material or design may be approved by FAA in a pre-manufactured state, to ensure the safety of passengers a follow-up inspection is needed by an FAA official to approve the aircraft for travel.  Thankfully, after a visit to the Stratasys facility by two FAA officials, it was determined that the final 3D printed air duct design was in fact safe to use in an aircraft.  

“Being responsible for FAA certifications opened our eyes to what additive manufacturing can accomplish,” Marin said. “We’ve always been dedicated to internal research, and improving manufacturing processes, and I think it really paid off in this project.”


Posted in 3D Printing Applicatoins


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Someone wrote at 3/21/2015 5:46:07 AM:

Flying eye hospitals sound like a bad idea.

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