Air New Zealand is expanding its additive manufacturing (AM) capabilities via a new partnership that will explore 3D printing of titanium and other metals.
In 2016 the airline’s technical department started printing simple plastic cabin components – a typical first step in AM 2016 for airlines and maintenance companies.
Its first metal component was a wine aerator. Chief operating officer Bruce Patton describes this as “a bit of fun”, but adds that “we’re really excited by the possibility they represent as 3D printing is both cost and space effective”.
The airline’s partner in the project is Zenith Tecnica, which specializes in electron beam melting. This works by melting metal powders together to create complex geometric shapes or even hollow parts that traditional manufacturing techniques cannot replicate.
“This is a good project to demonstrate the strength, versatility and utility of titanium 3D printed parts for aircraft applications,” says Zenith’s managing director, Martyn Newby.
However, metallic AM components can exhibit lower static and fatigue strengths than rolled billets of metal. This is partly down to the granular of the finished AM part. Overcoming such engineering challenges is often left to the OEMs, while airlines and MROs focus their AM efforts on parts that are simpler to prototype, produce and certify.
ANZ is exploring the boundaries of the new processes with Auckland University, Victoria University of Wellington and other technology companies but, for now, it appears to have non-structural components in mind.
“Aircraft interiors are made up of tens of thousands of parts, and the ability to 3D print on demand lightweight parts we only require a small number of, rather than rely on traditional manufacturing methods is of huge benefit to our business,” says Patton.