Anyone who has been paying attention in technology has probably at least heard of 3D printing – little models, design accessories and even food are all possible. But since the early 2010s industrial design has become a lot more cost-effective with 3D printing. Peter Sander of Airbus tells Techworld that it is revolutionising aviation design.

On the way in to meeting Sander, who is in charge of emerging technologies and concepts at Airbus Germany, a ‘Beluga’ plane carrying Airbus parts to another facility scoots along and takes off from the sprawling factory’s built-in runway.


In 2010 these machines were getting industrial, that was the first big change,” Sander explains. “In 2012, it really starts. These printers are growing double the speed each year. All the companies are in competition, they do multi-laser systems… in 2014 it was possible to print engine blocks for cars, for engine development – this was a breakthrough.”

Now the possibilities of testing industrial 3D printing are, in many ways, more cost effective than the traditional approach to design. A machine containing one tonne of titanium powder (a dust-like material that is actually very fine, tiny metal balls, used for 3D printing) can print an engine block in about two weeks.

If that sounds like a long time, consider that after those two weeks a complete engine block is ready: this can then go into heat treatment along with the other processes before it’s finalised, and then it’s ready to be tested. If there are problems, adjustments can be made to the 3D model before trying again. The costs are low and the process quick compared to the old ways: for example, convincing a boss to greenlight a concept and then having to find the funding from somewhere. This new method is about as agile as manufacturing design gets.

In aviation, one of the core challenges to efficiencies is in cutting down the weight of an aircraft. And according to Sander, the structures to take cues from are found in nature. Thanks to industrial 3D printing, experimenting with unorthodox structures is a plausible design experiment that doesn’t cost the earth.


A spoiler that takes inspiration from the water lily

Some clear practicalities that can be measured: 3D printing considerably cuts down on waste (traditional milling is at 95 percent waste; 3D printing with titanium powder is drastically less) and, following that, CO2 emissions. But there are also intriguing applications in experimenting with design.

Airbus created a 3D scan of a water lily, and now the company is copying the unique natural structure for spoilers, essentially brakes for the air that no longer have to conform to the mass-production methods that rely on the stringers and hinges you’d usually expect to see in planes, ships and trains.

No one thought it but this is more or less a copy of the design principle which is used in nature,” Sander explains. “Nature is only surviving with the minimum material to build, and the minimum of energy to live. That’s what nature does.

We try to understand nature – the original word is biomimicry. The first professorship is in Brehmen – Antonia Kesel – she explained to me we have around 20 million species of insects, animals, and so on. The world has looked at around 10,000, and they are using just 100 design principles, like the shark fin, and flying, of course.

So there is a potential pool of ideas from 20 million.”

We are investigating every part of an aircraft to see if it makes sense to use topology-optimised bionic design solutions,” Sander says, holding a tiny 3D-printed aluminium model of a plane’s chassis [pictured], of the same sort that might, engineering allowing, soar through the air in the not too distant future.