New Airbus contains more than 1,000 3D-printed parts
Aircraft manufacturers turning to 3D printers as a way to produce lighter parts more quickly
The new Airbus A350 XWB airliner is said to have been built using more than 1,000 3D-printed parts, more than any other aircraft.
The plane manufacturer has previously praised 3D printing as an alternative way to produce lighter parts, with shorter lead times and using fewer materials, making it better for the environment.
Parts such as brackets or panels can be "grown" in a printer, which uses computer-aided design information to add layer upon layer of materials such as aluminium, titanium, stainless steel and plastics.
James Woodcock, an expert on 3D printing with Rapid News, told the BBC that the Airbus A350 XWB was using the technology on an "unprecedented" scale. "Historically, the use of 3D printed parts have been in military aircraft rather than commercial passenger jets," he said.
Positioned to compete with Boeing's 787 and 777, the first Airbus A350 XWB was delivered to Qatar Airways in December. The airline describes it as a "next-generation aircraft" featuring state-of-the-art technology and an extra-wide body. The plane – which is said to be more efficient because of its tapered wing – is currently being used to fly passengers between Doha in Qatar and Frankfurt in Germany, as well as Doha and Singapore.
Stratasys, which manufactures 3D printing equipment, said its technology had enabled Airbus to manufacture "strong, lighter weight parts while substantially reducing production time and manufacturing costs".
Aircraft manufacturers, such as Airbus and Boeing, are also developing "spare parts solutions" so airlines can print replacement parts as and when they need them. This would reduce the need for large storage areas to keep spare parts, as well as reducing waiting times for parts from manufacturers.
Boeing recently filed a patent application for manufacturing aircraft parts with a 3D printer.
A spokesperson told GeekWire that Boeing had been using 3D printing since 1997 and currently prints around 300 non-metallic parts across ten different aircraft platforms.