3D printing adds up for aviation

| Information and Communication Technology

Additive manufacturing enables design without constraint

Jonathan Newell talks to Dassault Systèmes about how additive manufacturing could turn an aviation dream into reality.

Workers at French design system giant, Dassault Systèmes have a dream! After a long history of providing the defence and general aviation industry with tools for designing, simulating and prototyping aircraft, the company now believes the technology is available to make inroads on the long lead times needed to receive the certification necessary to put these aircraft into service. The corporate dream is to gain all these regulatory approvals at the simulation stage before any metal is even cut…. or more appropriately, added.

To many aviation industry professionals who are used to the long, protracted and complex certification procedures, such a dream may sound barmy but the busy Dassault Systèmes chalet at this year’s Farnborough Air Show was buzzing with confidence and over-flowing with optimism about the tools the company has and the technology that’s available to challenge existing design and manufacturing concepts and shake the dust off the compliance manuals.

To find out more about the Dassault approach, I spoke to the company’s charismatic VP of Global Marketing and former Air Force pilot, Pierre Marchadier. According to him, aircraft industry paradigms take a big shift about once every 15 years and advances in design, manufacturing and materials technology are the main aspects of the shift that’s currently taking place and that this is at the heart of the notion of reducing compliance lead times.

Pierre Marchadier of Dassault SystèmesVirtual Validation

The “Co-Design to Target” industry wide concept led by Dassault Systèmes provides a framework of digital continuity for the industry to collaborate on design, project management, prototyping, manufacturing and testing.

This includes the additive manufacturing of tooling, prototypes and parts for test flights and the optimisation of conceptual designs through the virtual validation of each phase of the additive manufacturing process.

This approach has now been adopted by Airbus Group, itself a pioneer in additive manufacturing (or 3D printing) in the aviation industry. Such technology is being used by the company for exploring new design ideas, reducing cost and weight and creating components that would earlier have been impossible to manufacture using traditional production processes.

Airbus is no stranger to the products of Dassault Systèmes and is a well-established user of the company’s simulation applications which it uses to accelerate structural analysis and virtual testing. According to Robert Nardini, Senior Vice President of Airframe Engineering at Airbus, this can now define a new way of designing parts by using simulation-based design to better meet the needs of the aviation market. “Numerous projects across Airbus are accelerating the use of additive manufacturing to produce prototypes as well as production components potentially delivering lighter and less expensive parts that meet technological, performance, safety and cost standards,” he said.

Additive Manufacturing

According to Marchadier, VR, simulation, software prototyping and the fast creation of prototype parts using 3D additive manufacturing have a high level of importance in realising the dream of faster compliance.

Having access to additive manufacturing enables the engineers to create generative designs based on the product’s function without the former constraints of tooling or fixed ideas. “Additive manufacturing makes the engineer and designer freer to create and bring virtual designs to a reality faster,” Marchadier told me.

To demonstrate the radical change in thinking that 3D printing can produce, Marchadier showed me an aircraft structural component that had been designed under traditional manufacturing constraints as well as the same component designed without constraint and manufactured using 3D printing. Without 3D printing, the more modern design would previously have been dismissed as being unable to be manufactured. Now it represents lower cost, lower energy and reduced weight.

But wouldn’t such avant-garde designs in such a highly regulated industry represent a fierce challenge in terms of compliance and even longer regulatory lead times? “Using Dassault 3DExperience to connect engineering systems to the simulation environment is crucial for challenging hypotheses and performing virtual prototyping,” Marchadier explained.

He went on to explain that once the virtual validation is complete, the process to create the real component using additive manufacturing is fast and the lead time to producing testable hardware is reduced. “Designs can be modified or customised very quickly based on validation results. This isn’t mass production and a custom product can be produced every time,” he said.

Material changes

The change from cutting metal to a powder-based additive process does present some challenges in terms of material compliance. As the industry continues to innovate and make use of modern materials and new production processes, the regulatory bodies are making adjustments to accommodate this.

Many of these regulations, including ITAR for the defence industry, are built into the Dassault software to warn engineers of potential non-compliance.

It isn’t just parts that are created using additive manufacturing though. At Airbus, the company is also using the technique to create tooling. Using the applications supplied by Dassault Systèmes in conjunction with its own engineering expertise in additive manufacturing, Airbus Group is actively exploring greater design and manufacturing possibilities to meet engineering and manufacturing requirements for the additive manufacturing of both tooling as well as finished parts.

Commenting on the deployment of 3DExperience in Airbus Group, Dassault Systèmes’ Senior Executive Vice President for Research & Development, Dominique Florack said, “Additive manufacturing is creating new opportunities in many different areas such as remote fabrication for support and maintenance, rapid prototyping for realising new concepts and experiences and, perhaps most importantly, developing designs that were heretofore impossible to fabricate.”

The Airbus A400M in flightA new wave of transformation

The pulling together of design, virtual prototyping, manufacturing of test parts, validation and ultimately the production of finished products using 3D printing is referred to by Florack as a new wave of transformation in the aerospace industry. Not only is it able to produce components that could never have been manufactured using traditional production processes, but it can also produce such radically new components within a framework that lends itself to faster delivery of regulatory compliant assemblies.

From the balcony of the Dassault chalet at Farnborough, we watched the Airbus A400M military aircraft manoeuvring across the airfield. Already 6 years old but nonetheless still an airborne showcase of advanced material technology, this impressive aircraft will in the future seem “old school” when compared to the equipment that is yet to be built on the basis of designs that have been released from the constraints of old manufacturing processes and given licence to fly thanks to additive manufacturing and shortened regulatory lead times.

Will the collective Dassault dream of achieving regulatory compliance whilst the design is still locked inside the computer ever become a reality or is it a contemporary virtual folly? Charpatier believes it will become a reality in the future. “It isn’t the dreamer that’s the fool but the one who abandons such dreams,” he remarked.

Jonathan Newell
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