A 3-D printed display shroud from Etihad Airways Engineering in multiple views.

APEX Insight: It’s just a matter of time before 3-D printing modernizes maintenance, repair and overhaul.

Imagine it, build it and attach it to an airplane. This basic sequence is more and more becoming the process of manufacturing new cabin fixtures and replacement components. Additive manufacturing, more widely known as 3-D printing, has been around since the 1980s, but it’s only really having a moment this decade. Leaps forward in both 3-D printing technology and the materials with which we can work have opened vast horizons of potential. What was once mainly a design and prototyping technique can now also be used for maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) across the airline industry.

“When we prototype, we have to take many steps to bring that design into reality,” says Bernhard Randerath, VP of Design, Engineering and Innovation for Etihad Airways Engineering. Etihad was the first airline to get certification for placing 3-D printed parts in the cabin, an enterprise that began in September 2016. The journey to 3-D printed plastic in-flight entertainment housing took six rigorous months, Randerath says: “We had an unbelievable amount of testing to do!” Randerath’s department designs for Etihad as well as for other airline customers. “Two customers are already flying with our 3-D printed parts, with more coming up.”

Ouroboros of Innovation

Product design influences material choice, which influences 3-D printer technology choice, which turns back around to inform design – like that M.C. Escher image of two hands drawing each other. “It’s really a chicken-and-egg scenario,” says Khaled Abdel-Motagaly, manager of Innovation and Technology for Etihad Airways Engineering. “Right now, you have one machine and one material that goes with it. We’re looking at how we can change this, so we can have multiple materials for one machine, as well as qualifying cheaper materials.” Abdel-Motagaly envisions this happening within the next 10 years.

“Lead time is one of the biggest advantages of 3-D printing.” –Khaled Abdel-Motagaly, Etihad Airways Engineering

Donovan Weber, co-founder and chief operating officer of Forecast 3D, reckons the egg will hatch soon: “As specific uses for a business case can be built, we will continue to see the materials field open up. We see additive manufacturing continue to help disrupt supply chains in a positive way. The early adopters and forward-thinking groups are utilizing companies like Forecast 3D to manage on-demand needs and quick-turn lots quite well.”

Warehousing and Supply Chains Reimagined

Obviously, 3-D printing a part can do wonders for your schedule. “Lead time is one of the biggest advantages of 3-D printing,” Abdel-Motagaly says. “We’ve seen this with items we’ve designed. If we did this with conventional manufacturing methods, it would have taken months. With 3-D printing, once you have the certification, all you need is the machine and the CAD [computer-aided design].” Bringing out-of-production parts back to life is also easier, he adds.

“Because you can print nearly any shape, additional operations like milling are limited only to functional surfaces,” says Nicolas Bonleux, managing director and chief sales officer for Liebherr-Aerospace and Transportation. “The development of factory structures for additive manufacturing applications – with regard to lean production and new machines coming to market – offers possibilities to exploit the full potential of the technology and decrease the overall processing time and costs.” He notes that traditional manufacturing is still currently less expensive. Abdel-Motagaly agrees, adding that high-volume, simple parts are cheaper and easier to mass-produce by conventional means, such as injection molding.

“It truly feels like we are standing at the front lines of the next industrial revolution as these programs are starting to get some legs on them.” – Nicolas Bonleux, Liebherr-Aerospace and Transportation

As additive manufacturing gets cheaper and more widely certified, the economies of scale will move more parts from traditional manufacturing into the 3-D arena. Warehousing will change considerably, says Weber, whose company is working with SAP and Deloitte to analyze supply chains for constructive disruption: “It truly feels like we are standing at the front lines of the next industrial revolution as these programs are starting to get some legs on them.” Bonleux agrees, saying, “Through functional integration, different components could be merged into one single part. Additional warehouse capacity and part suppliers would not be necessary anymore.”

3D Forecast’s printing facilities

Super-Science, but Not Supernatural

Additive manufacturing allows for the creation of complex parts that would otherwise be very expensive to craft from components, but the technology can be slow. “If additive manufacturing gets faster, the limitations for its application will drop,” Bonleux says. “Starting with engineering, every designer could print a current design to help visualize it. Concerning serial production, more components could be replaced through additive designs, reducing weight and costs over the whole life cycle of the component. Furthermore, the parts for repair activities may be produced on demand and the need for important inventories of spares across several locations worldwide may be substantially reduced.”

“As specific uses for a business case can be built, we will continue to see the materials field open up.” – Donovan Weber, Forecast 3D

“In the short term, 3-D printing is enabling us to plan for out-of-production parts – especially low-volume, high-cost plastic cabin parts – allowing us to reduce weight, shorten turnaround time and produce them at a lower cost,” Abdel-Motagaly says. He cites certification as one of two main limitations to widespread adoption of 3-D printing in the MRO space. The other limitation, he says, is material selection. A 3-D printer tends to work with only one particular type of material, so spinning up a bespoke part will at first require a small-scale, high-cost production run of its own.

Bonleux adds, “Because of high technology costs for the build process and post-processing, currently additive manufacturing for spare parts is limited.” Abdel-Motagaly says that Etihad is using 3-D printing for plastic cabin parts, at least for now: “Our vision for the future is to do 50 percent or more of cabin parts on demand. We won’t need a lot of stock anymore, the supply chain will be completely simplified, and the cost will significantly go down as well.” While ergonomics must be taken into account for parts such as headrests, Randerath adds, those aren’t as critical as the structural components of the airplane itself – hence the interplay between design, certification and material selection.

Especially, Bonleux adds, when every kilogram counts: “Freedom, light weight and functional integration are key. There are far fewer design restrictions, and thus the achieved ‘complexity-for-free’ is a main benefit. Additive manufacturing offers weight optimization as well as assembly and life-cycle cost reductions.” Paving the way to scalability, though, requires artisanal prototyping explorations. “We find that in any market or application that has low-volume needs, we generally can provide a compelling manufacturing solution no matter what vertical it is,” Weber says. “We can typically meet aesthetic and time-to-market needs; it typically comes down to part requirements and materials used with the engineering team.”

For his part, Weber says, he loves being involved in projects where each team really groks design for additive manufacturing to unlock state-of-the-industry outcomes. Beyond design, prototyping and tooling, production is the holy grail of additive manufacturing. This will in turn re-envision supply chains and good old-fashioned bureaucracy. The theoretical limits of 3-D printing, however, ultimately lie in the user’s imagination. 


“Printing in Progress,” was originally published in the 8.2 April/May issue of APEX Experience magazine.