May 16, 2016 | By Benedict

McFarlane Aviation, a Kansas-based manufacturer of replacement aircraft parts, is looking to expand its business by opening a new additive manufacturing facility. By working closely with the FAA, McFarlane hopes to force the approval of 3D printed aircraft parts—a feat that would have significant knock-on effects for the industry as a whole. Using 3D printers will also help the company to reduce costs and maximize efficiency, says general manager Dan McFarlane.

Located on a quaint country airport in Vinland, Kansas, right in the middle of the United States, family-run business McFarlane Aviation could hardly be better placed to manufacture and distribute aircraft components for its nationwide customer base. For almost 50 years, McFarlane has been providing high-quality replacement parts for Cessna, Piper, Grumman, Beechcraft, and Ag-Cat airplanes, delivering quality parts at a lower price than the original manufacturer.

Much has changed in the aerospace industry since McFarlane was first established by David McFarlane, now company president, in 1970. Slowly but surely, additive manufacturing has made a convincing case for itself as a viable option for small parts production—think 3D printed fuel nozzles, 3D printed cabin partitions, and more. And while giant aircraft manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus, who have been particularly vocal in their advocacy of 3D printing, can benefit greatly from the technology, it could offer an even bigger advantage to medium-sized businesses like McFarlane.

In 2012, McFarlane added 24,000 square feet of production and warehouse space to its existing premises, with the intention of setting up a new additive manufacturing facility called McFarlane AMS. Over the last 18 months, engineers at the company have been studying additive manufacturing technology, in the hope of securing new customers through selective laser melting (SLM) 3D printing services. When the company installs its proposed duo of 3D printers, it will be able to manufacture entirely new components, as well as making stronger and cheaper versions of existing ones. There is, however, an obstacle to the process: FAA certification. “[3D printing] is basically a new manufacturing process with not enough history of durability or reliability,” Dan McFarlane told Lawrence Journal-World. “We will be working closely with the FAA to certify those processes. It’s a lot of testing and a lot of research and development.”

McFarlane has not disclosed which model of 3D printer it is looking to invest in, but has suggested that an outlay of $1 million per unit would be required. With that investment and other costs involved in the expansion, the company is seeking a partner for the project. With several 3D printer manufacturers also hoping for a speedy stamp of approval from the FAA regarding 3D printed aircraft components, Dan McFarlane thinks this partnership could come sooner rather than later: “Because we’re investing so much to get FAA certification and in infrastructure, we will be partnering with a machine manufacturer who sees the value of what we are doing,” he said. “We’re going to be the one that gets it up and going for the broader aerospace industry.”

The two proposed 3D printers will require 12 x 12 x 12 inch build volumes, enough for McFarlane to manufacture a range of small airplane parts that would be far more costly to produce via traditional means. The printers will also allow McFarlane to use less metal for each component, while actually making stronger and lighter parts than before. This is due to the topology optimization that 3D printing affords: by engineering the internal structure of a component with tunnels, lattice structures, and such, the company will be able to maximize a component’s strength and stiffness while minimizing material cost.

“With traditional machining, the more complex and intricate a part is the more expensive it is to manufacture,” Dan McFarlane explained. “With this, the more complex a part is, the less expensive it is to make because there is less base metal used. It’s also a very green technology. With milling, up to 60 percent of metal is waste or is recycled. This uses 99 percent of the base metal.”

Although the investment required to kickstart the new additive manufacturing facility will be significant, McFarlane is confident that 3D printing is a risk worth taking.



Posted in 3D Printer Company



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