Using 3D printers to combat Areospace supply chain problems

Using 3D printers to combat Areospace supply chain problems

BigRep, a global leader in large-format 3D printing solutions, is helping its customers to bypass traditional supply chains and produce large-scale parts for aircraft maintenance as the industry seeks to resolve supply chain issues.

As most people are unfortunately all too aware, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic halted most travel, resulting in the immediate grounding of 62% of passenger planes. However fewer people know that airplane engines need protection from the elements when parked for long periods, and standard procedures require the use of covers to prevent damage from moisture and other objects. With many of its planes suddenly grounded, Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) found that it did not have the necessary inventory of off-the-shelf engine covers, exhaust plugs, etc. The domino effect of supply chain shortages worldwide engendered by the Covid-19 crisis meant that it was impossible for SAS to simply order more equipment protect their fleet.

This meant that the company had to find an alternative solution to their problem and SAS determined that shortening the supply chain was the key—harnessing more locally available resources. One possible way of shortening the supply chain was to use 3D printing solutions but they needed technology large enough to produce engine exhaust covers. To achieve this, SAS turned to CNE Engineering, a local specialized supplier using BigRep 3D printers, to find a solution to their specific problem. The nature of the aerospace industry meant that the engine exhaust covers would need to withstand high temperatures, exhibit chemical and UV resistance while remaining soft enough to not damage the engine upon removal and installation. Based on these requirements, castable urethane, a widely available and low-cost material, was deemed be the best option.

CNE’s Nathan Brown, Managing Director of CNE said, “There was an opportunity to not only fill their need
for this tool they couldn’t acquire through the normal supply chain, but we also saw the opportunity to
make it better.”

CNE’s solution for SAS was to use two BigRep machines to 3D print molds to produce several cast parts. The BigRep
ONE’s cubic meter build volume was more than capable of accommodating the primary, large-scale piece while BigRep’s STUDIO was ideal for printing the smaller features, like removable mold inserts. CNE used various BigRep
materials for different parts such as the bio-based PLX for the outer shells, HI-TEMP CF for the center core, and TPU
for the insert molds. By using large-format 3D printing, CNE was able to meet SAS’s timing requirements as the tooling was printed in just a few days while castings required only hours.

Jason Deadman, Production Engineer at SAS says, “There is so much that goes into aircraft maintenance
that you don’t see. Technology is something SAS is embracing.” Within two months of the kick-off
meeting, SAS received its initial order. CNE’s success with their BigRep machines shows the full range of
what 3D printing offers: fast production, design flexibility, low volume, low cost, and minimal waste.
BigRep’s Chairman of the Board and Managing Director of 360 Aircraft Finance Peter Smeets said, “This
case study is a shining example of how BigRep’s large-format 3D printers are already changing the game
in aerospace MRO. We believe this is only the beginning and that 3D printed solutions will become the
gold standard for custom, cost-effective manufacturing free from traditional supply chain issues.”