Stelia Aerospace believes 3D printing has the potential to go large when it comes to aircraft construction. The French-based company has unveiled the first printed self-reinforcing fuselage panel in an effort to demonstrate the potential of additive manufacturing to deliver cheaper, lighter and more environmentally-friendly components.

Aerospace manufacturing is a complex, expensive, and time consuming affair that involves a huge logistical army bringing together hundreds of thousands of parts, which all need to be fitted together just so if the final product is an aircraft safe to fly and not an overpriced hunk of scrap. Fuselages, for example, are often nothing but tubes of thin-rolled aluminum alloy that couldn't hold its shape against its own weight. For that reason, the hull of an aircraft is reinforced by a spider's web of stiffeners that act as a supporting skeleton.

The problem is that these stiffeners need to be set in place, fitted, then secured using screws or welding. Not only does this cost time and money, but every additional part and step means one more thing to inspect and one more thing that can go wrong.

Working in conjunction with Constellium aluminum, engineering school Centrale Nantes and the CT Ingénierie group, Stelia has come up with a much simpler fuselage panel that incorporates its own reinforcements. The one-piece, 1 m² metal demonstrator was created by a programmed robotic tool using a process called Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM). This is similar to 3D printing techniques that melt strands of plastic and deposit it to build up an object. Only in this case, the plastic is replaced by aluminum wire that's melted by an electric arc, which means the stiffeners can be directly printed on instead of being added later.

Stelia hopes that the new panel will show the potential for large-scale additive manufacturing, which will make constructing complex components much simpler. In addition, the process has less environmental impact, allows for new designs, integrates various functions in a single part, uses less material, and provides saving both in weight and costs.

"With this 3D additive manufacturing demonstrator, Stelia Aerospace aims to provide its customers with innovative designs on very large structural parts derived from new calculation methods," says Cédric Gautier, CEO of Stelia Aerospace. "Through its R&T department, and thanks to its partners, Stelia Aerospace is therefore preparing the future of aeronautics, with a view to develop technologies that are always more innovative and will directly impact our core business, aerostructures."

The panel was constructed as part of the DEveloppement de la Fabrication Additive pour Composant TOpologique (DEFACTO) project to demonstrate the viability of large-scale 3D printing in aerospace design and manufacturing.

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