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Dassault is also looking at larger applications – including a 3’ x 4’ lavatory headliner, made from a mold assembled from four 3D printed panels – and the production of composite parts molds. The company is also researching use of AM for more complex aircraft parts, including a 3D printed, titanium control yoke mechanism. “We’re still a few years away from seeing 3D printed parts certified for use in such flight-critical applications,” added Carel, “but the benefits certainly make them worth exploring.”


If such applications seem complex, consider that in 2015 researchers at Australia’s Monash University led a year-long project that successfully reproduced a complete gas turbine engine entirely through AM, modeled on the auxiliary power unit (APU) from a Falcon 20.


“It was our chance to prove what we could do,” recounted Professor Xinhua Wu, director of the Monash Centre for Additive Manufacturing. Ongoing development of the technology shows promise for replicating lighter, more efficient and more durable engine components.


TECHNOLOGY EVOLVING TO SUPPORT LARGER APPLICATIONS


While current in-service applications for additive manufacturing at Dassault are relatively small, producing parts and molds that fit within a roughly one square-foot envelope, even this provides significant opportunities for development and experimentation. In fact, one of the most important roles for AM lies in the prototyping process for new parts and tooling.


“Tooling can be incredibly expensive, highly specialized, and time-consuming,” said Stan Clark, Senior Manager, R&D Engineering. “With our prototyping printer, we can design a custom tool for a specific application, print it out, and use it as a one-off piece within a matter of days and weeks, versus months.”


“Of course, a polymer part won’t be as durable as something milled from aluminum, but that’s okay because they aren’t really competing technologies,” Carel added. “Some applications required long-term durability tooling, but there are plenty of cases where there’s a specific demand for a relatively low-application part where you don’t want to invest in a high-rate tool. AM allows us to manufacture those components in a cost-effective manner.”


For example, Dassault recently 3D printed a cupholder used in cabin divans, an experience Clark said provided clear examples of the technology’s benefits and its current limitations. “We used AM because it takes a while to manufacture conventionally, and many parts wind up getting scrapped,” he said. “We pushed a button and had it, [but] initial surface quality wasn’t to the standard our customers expect inside their cabins.”


Rather than being discouraged by those results, however, team members view them as a necessary step in the evolution of AM technology. “With some loose parts you won’t really know until it’s produced if it will meet technical or cosmetic standards, and modifications are expensive,” Carel said. “AM allows us to quickly produce the part, review it, and make any changes that are required.”


These relatively early efforts also represent a mere fraction of the technology’s potential. While Dassault currently utilizes a selective laser sintering (SLS) device that melts a polymer powder to form components into new shapes and designs, the technology continues to evolve towards devices enabling much faster printing of larger components from an expanded array of polymers and metal alloys.


“AM is a path to ‘agile manufacturing,’ and a more flexible supply chain,” Carel concluded. “Dassault is working on evolutions that will enable us to respond quickly to customer desires and input to produce high- quality, highly customizable modular products while controlling the overall cost.”


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