The spluttering progress of additive manufacturing in aerospace has advanced another layer with a production agreement between Etihad Airways Engineering (EAE) and Diehl Aerosystems.
Shortly after receiving its Part 21J production approval from EASA, EAE announced the pilot project to design, 3D print and install cover plates for IFE systems.
EAE and Diehl expect to collaborate on other products in the future.
“Our partnership with Diehl will help us commercialise this technology and make it available to our customers around the world,” said Jeff Wilkinson, chief executive of EAE.
Once touted as a groundbreaking technology, 3D printing has struggled to progress from the design and prototyping stage of aerospace production, so EAE’s move into commercial production – albeit initially for just one airline customer – should be exciting.
However, the manufacture of non-critical parts has already been explored by others: in 2013 BAE certified a 3D-printed window component for the BAE146 regional jet; and last year Air New Zealand announced plans to print tray tables for its business class cabins.
Out of the cabin, though, 3D printing has advanced more cautiously. CFM prints fuel nozzles for its new LEAP engine and GE has gained certification for a sensor-housing retrofit on the GE90 engine, but applying the technology to full-scale production of high-value parts like fan blades looks some way off.
“For the foreseeable future, our focus is on using 3D technology to produce non-life-critical, non‑rotating components,” said Honeywell’s Donald Godfrey in an interview with E&T magazine last year.
Nonetheless, British manufacturer GKN has invested heavily in 3D printing, with a view to producing critical aerostructures with the technology.
One such part may be a titanium inner wall for a thrust reverser, though other involved in engine nacelle production are less optimistic about the manufacturing potential of 3D printing.
“There is no doubt that additive will be in production in our next nacelle systems, but it may not be as transformational as in other commercial aircraft systems,” Marc Duvall, president, aerostructures, UTC Aerospace Systems, told Inside MRO earlier this year.