Aircraft

Stelia uses 3D printing to create self-reinforcing aircraft fuselage panel

The printed fuselage panel showing the rough printed surface on the left and the polished and painted surface on the right
The printed fuselage panel showing the rough printed surface on the left and the polished and painted surface on the right
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Diagram of a fuselage with 3D-printed stiffeners
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Diagram of a fuselage with 3D-printed stiffeners
The printed fuselage panel showing the rough printed surface on the left and the polished and painted surface on the right
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The printed fuselage panel showing the rough printed surface on the left and the polished and painted surface on the right

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.

Diagram of a fuselage with 3D-printed stiffeners
Diagram of a fuselage with 3D-printed stiffeners

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.

Source: Stelia Aerospace

3 comments
aki009
Great. I can't wait for a complete 3D fuselage section that's printed using this technique. To support the work piece they might need a circular moving platform that'd be quite an interesting sight by itself. And this would really help lighten up wings. But how does it compare to a carbon fiber fuselage? It'd need to be as light and strong to make sense in anything but low production rate designs where the setup costs of carbon fiber outweigh the benefits.
Ben Chernicoff
"...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." What percentage of aircraft are rejected during assembly or testing due to poor fitment during construction? I never knew this was a thing, but you list it in this article, so I hope you can provide more info.
Paul Stregevsky
This structural approach is known as isogrid ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isogrid ). I wrote a report about it in the mid 1980s, when I worked in the Manufacturing Research division of Lockheed Aircraft. At Lockheed, we were testing a way to create a fiber-resin isogrid fuselage by filament winding.
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