A new production technique takes the Paris Air Show spotlight

22 June 2011

As EADS Innovation Works’ presence at this week’s Paris Air Show is drawing much attention with its futuristic aircraft concepts on exhibit, a more “down to Earth” element also represents a true revolution for the aerospace industry.

The Airbike bicycle display at Le Bourget Airport provides an excellent example of EADS Innovation Works’ leadership role in applying the new production concept called Additive Layer Manufacturing (ALM), which takes 2-dimensional layers of computer data and rebuilds them into 3-dimensional solid objects through the deposition of material in incremental stages.

With this 3-D “printing,” the ALM process enables very complex geometries to be produced directly from computer-aided design (CAD) information without the need for dies, form tools or moulds. In addition, ALM utilises significantly less raw material for any given component, and produces negligible levels of waste in comparison to traditional machining processes – in which up to 90 percent of the material may need to be removed.

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EADS Innovation Works’ Jon Meyer explains the ALM process used to build the Airbike, which is displayed on the company’s Paris Air Show exhibit stand.

The Airbike’s frame was produced in a single piece using high-strength nylon powder and a laser for the melting and layering, with its wheels, bearings and axle also the resulting from the same process and added to complete the bicycle.

EADS Innovation Works’ Metallic Technologies and Surface Engineering Division has been exploring the ALM process for aerospace manufacturing applications, with flight-proven components already including aerodynamically-profiled cooling ducts successfully used on an Airbus test aircraft during more than 120 flight hours of hot weather trials, and a complex air intake baffle installed on a small aircraft flown in competitive air races.

“We brought the Airbike to Le Bourget as a visible demonstration of how we can ‘grow’ something from powder, including integrated parts such as the ball bearings – which are produced with the bike rather than through a separate assembly,” said Jon Meyer, research team leader with EADS Innovation Works in the UK.

Born out of a process that had its aerospace roots in the production of wind tunnel models, Meyer said ALM technologies are making it possible for high-strength and high-performance materials to be processed, opening its use in major structural parts for aircraft.

“The Airbike is something that captures people’s imagination, which was our goal for the Paris Air Show. We plan to continuing working with the EADS business units, along with suppliers and companies around the world to broaden its use,” Meyer said. “Eurocopter already has applied the same type of ALM plastics technology used for the Airbike to make parts of its helicopters, and others are joining the trend.”

Airbike’s presence at the Paris Air Show is a success in drawing attention to the ALM production processes’ unique capabilities, which began with the impromptu “test ride” performed by EADS Chief Executive Officer Louis Gallois during the company’s media seminar last weekend, which was witnessed by invited reporters from around the world.