Airbus is a global trailblazer in the field of 3D printing, and the aerospace company has established a technology centre for this new production method in Bremen. This is one of many reasons why the Hanseatic city has become a hub for 3D printing in Europe.
Peter Sander is a 3D printing expert in the Emerging Technologies & Concepts department at Airbus and a pioneer in the industrial use of this additive manufacturing method. Here he tells us how the global company successfully deployed the technology and how small and medium-sized companies can take advantage of it too.
Mr Sander, how important is 3D printing to Airbus?
Sander: The material and process developers at Airbus in Bremen have been working in this field for more than 15 years, initially with a particular focus on plastics. In its infancy, rapid prototyping* was not suitable for wide-scale industrial use and therefore had little impact in the company. This has changed considerably over the last five to ten years, and 3D printing is now used throughout the company. Everyone has recognised that 3D printing has great potential.
*Fast manufacture of sample parts/prototypes using 3D printing.
How did this come about?
Sander: We founded an ‘innovation cell’ at Airbus in 2010. This was a self-organised interdisciplinary team that was able to work outside of the usual top-down processes. The intention was to develop innovative technologies that bring quick results and to demonstrate how they work in practice. The initial focus was on 3D printing and automated design. We looked for experts and use cases, and created inhouse campaigns to promote the new manufacturing method across the group. The campaigns were particularly helpful.
How are these campaigns contributing to the process of innovation at Airbus?
Sander: The campaigns are Europe-wide calls for suggestions on how to use new technologies. The most effective campaign for 3D printing ran in 2014, when we received around 200 suggestions in just six weeks. After a three-month analysis and manufacturing phase, the 13 finalists presented the possibilities of 3D printing to senior management at Airbus. The outcome was a request to establish a Europe-wide 3D printing platform, with the aim of facilitating the introduction of 3D printing in industrial processes. The platform has been in operation throughout Airbus Commercial – i.e. aeroplanes – since the end of 2014.