3D Printing In The Time Of Coronavirus

The advent of 3D printing is a concept that has been increasingly deployed in the MRO industry in the past five years, albeit at a considerably slower pace compared to other emerging technologies.

Typically, shops can use the technology to replicate non-essential aircraft parts made from metal or plastic. For instance, they could be cabins component from a seat head rest to a passenger tray table.

However, adoption of the technology has been relatively sluggish. Two commonly cited barriers are concerns about the parts certification process in relation to traditionally made components and material performance.

Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has grounded much of the world’s aircraft fleet, aerospace OEMs and MROs have utilized their capabilities to aid virus-related efforts. Much of this has revolved around helping supply medical equipment, notably in the creation of ventilators and protective masks, as demonstrated by the likes of  Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation.

In the realms of additive manufacturing, Etihad Airways Engineering is one of the notable MRO providers lending its technical expertise. At its specialist lab in Abu Dhabi, the company has collaborated with another division of the airline group--Etihad Airways Medical Centre (EAMC)--to supply face shields to medical institutions across the United Arab Emirates. 

Produced by a machine normally outputting aircraft parts, Etihad is producing up to 42 masks from recyclable material. 

The company has been using 3D printing tools since 2017 when it received EASA approval to use filament technology--making it the first airline MRO globally able to certify, print and operate aircraft containing 3D printed cabin components, it says.

While Etihad has pushed forward with its use of additive manufacturing, it is not alone in using the technology, which can produce parts considered to be as strong and durable as traditional components while sometimes weighing 50% less.

British Airways announcing in late 2019 that it was exploring ways to 3D print non-essential cabin parts including pieces of tray tables, entertainment systems and toilets.

AFI KLM E&M, which has championed additive manufacturing-related projects as part of its wider work involving robotics, says it has reduced the time required to acquire certain tools by up to 90% by using a 3D printer. Highlighting the “exciting potential” of additive manufacturing, the MRO cites turnaround time reductions, independence from OEM logistical timeframes, and repairing components that previously would have been replaced as potential advantages for maintenance providers.

When reducing lead times could be ever-more critical for repair shops in the post COVID-19 environment, many of additive manufacturing advocates hope that 3D printing machines could increasingly become a fixture of the modern-day maintenance hangar. 

James Pozzi

As Aviation Week's MRO Editor EMEA, James Pozzi covers the latest industry news from the European region and beyond. He also writes in-depth features on the commercial aftermarket for Inside MRO.