Production using additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry brings many advantages. Airbus Helicopters uses its German RepRap x400 3D printer in the development field to ensure deadlines, cost and quality goals. In a recent case, it has been utilised in validating the design of an integral new step.

Frank Singer, Head of Department Vehicle System Installation at Airbus Helicopters in Germany explains: “It happens again and again that a crew member of a helicopter stands outside on the runners during the flight due to operational reasons under certain circumstances, such as during operation of the rescue winch. The relatively small footprint on the runners could be optimised by using a step.”

Firstly, the nearly 3m-long model is subdivided into individual printable parts. Afterwards, individual plug-in connections are constructed, in a design reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle.

“In the past, we have had to divide larger prototypes into separate parts because of the print bed size,” says Frank Singer. “These were often glued together. However, this was always associated with further processing steps, which we can now save – if the application allows it. The quickly printed parts require no further processing steps or curing time of the adhesive anymore. With this method, we have found an ingenious application for this design, to have a large component quickly and cost-effectively available with the print bed size that is available.”

For Airbus Helicopters, the new plug-in connection, for appropriate applications, is an optimal solution because it requires no glue, no screw connection or tools. The plug connection can be used at least 50 times without any signs of wear.

The model is much more stable than it would be in a glueing process. It withstands its own weight of 3.9kg without any problems and can be mounted on the helicopter for illustrative purposes without wobbling or even loosening or falling off. PLA was used because the material can be easily and quickly processed and there were no further requirements for the component.

Airbus Helicopters uses the German RepRap x400 especially for the so-called “FIT Check”. All designed parts are printed as prototypes. With these parts, installability and fitting for the helicopter are checked. Possible changes and adjustments can be easily transferred to the series parts with little effort.

The machine was purchased in 2015 to make it easier for engineers, in particular, to make prototypes faster and easier to test. Over the years, the company has acquired more and more knowledge and no longer wants to work without the 3D printer.

“The x400 is in use every day and often runs on weekends,” Singer adds. “The use of the readily available prototypes or demonstrators has become firmly established in our development process. We see this clearly in the future, especially in the development area. The use of the 3D printer makes it easier for the company to work, especially in the area of prototype construction and in automated production. You can see that clearly in the numbers. In 2017, almost 50 print jobs were carried out, often including several parts. In the first half of 2018 we already had 51 print jobs.”