Get ready Jetsons. The armrest on your next airplane ride might have be made by a 3-D printer.
In June, Stratasys Ltd. introduced a new 3-D printer at the Paris Air Show that makes the Federal Aviation Administration and European Aviation Safety Agency approval process easier for aviation parts makers, said the company with dual headquarters in Eden Prairie and Israel.
Stratasys promises that its Fortus 900mc Aircraft Interiors Certification Solution can make the certification process quicker for new interior plane parts such as armrests and window panels.
The 3-D printer includes updated hardware and software to make strong and lightweight aircraft parts on a repeatable process.
It took four years of working with aerospace customers to achieve both repeatability and FAA certification, Stratasys officials said.
“Until now, the process of achieving FAA certification for 3-D printing has been limiting the adoption of additive manufacturing in aviation,” said Scott Sevcik, who heads Stratasys’ Aerospace, Defense and Automotive Solutions.
“There have been limited specialized solutions and statistical data sets available to support this complex process,” Sevcik said. “With the new Stratasys Fortus 900mc Aircraft Interiors Certification Solution, we are removing major obstacles and making it much easier to 3-D print airworthy parts.”
If successful, the effort could help Stratasys meet its longtime goal of increasing aerospace revenue. “The opportunity represented here has near term potential in the tens of millions [of dollars] and can extend to well over $100 million,” Sevcik said.
Stratasys’ 3-D printers already are used in the $13 billion aerospace industry, but mostly to make prototypes and assembly tools for customers such as Airbus, NASA, United Launch Alliance, Siemens and Boeing.
Customers can choose to buy the new printer to have in-house or contract with Stratasys to manufacture the parts, most likely lightweight pieces for the interior of the airplane. The company expects that most customers will buy their own printer.
Stratasys’ newest manufacturing process uses strong Ultem 9085 thermoplastic resin, which is lightweight, nontoxic and flame resistant. The resin, which comes in the form of pellets or string like filaments, is used inside Stratasys’ Fortus 900mc printer.
The printer melts the resin, reads the computerized digital design file and then repeatedly “prints” or deposits tiny droplets of resin in exactly the right place until a 3-D (and often hollow) structure emerges, such as an armrest or a window panel.
The goal is to be able to use 3-D printing to manufacture large quantities of an interior airplane part with reliable consistency, said Stratasys spokesman Joe Hiemenz.
The printer, and by extension the process, is now undergoing a first-of-its-kind qualification test by the FAA. The test is being conducted at the National Institute of Aviation Research’s (NIAR) National Center for Advanced Materials Performance (NCAMP) at Wichita State University and will be completed by September.
A final qualification report will follow.
“NIAR has been commissioned to develop the framework that would include polymer additive manufacturing [also known as 3-D printing] under the NCAMP umbrella. And we have partnered with Stratasys to be the first material for this new process,” said Paul Jonas, NIAR’s director of technology, development and special programs.
Jonas noted that FAA manufacturing requirements are extremely stringent because each 3-D printed airplane part must be exactly the same.
“The first part that you make has to be equivalent to the hundredth part, to the thousandth part and to the part you make 10 years from now in order to be good enough to be certified by the FAA,” Jonas said. “That is what is so powerful about the NCAMP process.”
If Stratasys passes the institute’s test, it would be the latest accomplishment for a company that has struggled with profitability.
Stratasys, which generated $672 million in revenue but recorded a $77 million loss last year, announced three other new aerospace partnerships last month.
Stratasys’ Fortus 900mc printer was chosen by the German Aerospace Centre to make a working robot prototype capable of exploring Mars.
That prototype is now being tested and subjected to extreme conditions believed to be found on Mars.
Separately, Eviation Aircraft said it will use Stratasys 3-D printers to make prototypes, tools and parts for its electric private airplanes.
Stratasys also announced that its 3-D printers will be used by Boom Supersonic to make a lightweight experimental jet that will travel about 2.6 times faster than a standard commercial jet. That’s 1,451 miles per hour. The prototype for that project is set to be done by 2018.
If achieved, it could transform the flight industry, shortening commercial flights from New York and London to just three hours instead of seven, officials said.