3D printing of metal aircraft components

Additive Industries 3D metaalprinter

Originally, 3D printers were mainly used for the creation of prototypes. But the technology has matured, and nowadays it can even be used for serial production.

"We saw opportunities in this industrial environment," says Mark Vaes from Additive Industries. With financial support from the WBSO (R&D tax credit) and Innovatiekrediet (Innovation credit), this company developed a 3D metal printer for, amongst other things, aircraft components.

Lighter, superior products

Although 3D printing is often slightly more expensive than conventional production technologies, this method of production has many advantages. "The restricted speed makes it relatively expensive but you gain from the fact that this method of production produces a high-quality product. With a 3D printer, for example, you can manufacture machine parts that have superior thermal properties and are lighter."

Reducing fuel consumption

"This is particularly important in the aviation industry, because every kilogram that you lose in weight has a direct impact on the fuel consumption of the aircraft and, over a life span of an average of 30 years, that really adds up. So, the first 3D printer we supplied was to Airbus APWorks in Munich, but since then there’s been a great deal of interest from other sectors."

Metal powder into solid forms

To print metal components, a thin layer (50 micrometers) of metal powder is placed on a build platform. A laser traces the design into that metal powder. This melts the metal powder, and it then cools down at high speed, fusing into solid form. Vaes: "What makes our 3D printer different is the high degree of automation: the metal powder is removed automatically. And whereas our competitors brush the powder away, we use suction to extract it."

Tricky technique

It sounds easier than it is. "Removing the metal powder proved to be a tricky business. Powder behaves in an unusual way. That makes it difficult to control, although with serial production it’s crucial that the printer works properly at all times."

Reproducible process

"Another challenge we faced was making sure that all the printed products were actually identical. How do we build a reproducible process? And how do we ensure that laser capacity and laser beam remain stable? A great deal of our expertise lies in these developments," explains Vaes.

Pressure to stay abreast of developments

Additive Industries had to work under a huge amount of time pressure. Things change quickly in the field of 3D printing. So quickly, in fact, that they had to develop and launch the 3D printer in just a couple of years. "The market for industrial 3D printers was growing. If we were to gain a foothold in that market, there was no time to waste. That’s one of the reasons why we set ourselves such a tight deadline. We started developing the printer in 2013 and it was launched at Formnext in Frankfurt am Main in 2015," says Vaes.

As well as a short development time, this also meant reviewing our organisation. "We started out with three people and, just before the launch, we had dozens of people working with us to meet the deadline."

R&D tax credit is also crucial

For a company like Additive Industries, the R&D tax credit scheme WBSO is crucial, says Vaes. "We are a start-up. And, just as it is for other start-ups, funding is a challenge. In the first few years, it’s all expenditure and there's very little income. And the development costs are also high. Without R&D tax credit, a project like this would be virtually impossible." Additive Industries also took advantage of the Innovation credit scheme and the R&D tax relief scheme RDA for development of its 3D metal printer.

"We submitted the application for R&D tax credit in 2013, each of us taking responsibility for part of the application. With hindsight, the process went pretty well. RVO.nl sometimes asked additional questions, but we kept in close contact and the questions were clear. We purchased a software tool to record the number of hours that we worked, but we didn’t regard this as an additional cost because we think it’s important to document the number of hours we spend."

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