From 3D printing to robotics: Next-generation technologies at Airbus and Fraport

Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is gearing up for the future with new production technologies. One field of research is 3D printing. Metal or synthetic powder is laser-welded, layer by layer, during the additive process. 3D-printed components have been used in Airbus aircraft since 2014. The first product to be manufactured was a plastic compartment for an Airbus A310 seatbelt.

Using digital print data, the spare part can now be manufactured on demand at any time and large quantities no longer need to be stored over the long term. The new technology has already produced hundreds of different components: from the bionic-shaped titanium bracket for a cabin element in the A350 XWB to stairs for helicopters and the fuel pipe for the A400M military transporter.

Peter Sander with a 3D-printed wing flap, which is based on the stable vein structure of the Victoria water lily.
The 3D-printed components for flight control caused quite a stir in 2017. The A380 component was developed in collaboration with Liebherr Aerospace. It regulates the brake flaps and is therefore of great relevance to safety. The component performs just as well as traditional ones but is 35 percent lighter. “3D printing makes weight reductions of up to 45 percent possible,” says Peter Sander, head of future technologies at Airbus in Germany. Less weight means less fuel consumption and fewer emissions. Material and energy consumption are also lower with 3D printing than with standard milling processes.

Another example is the “Bionic Partition” which has won multiple awards. The 1.40 x 2.10 meter large dividing wall for cabins is the world’s largest 3D printed cabin component for airplanes and is made up of branch-like structures modelled after those found in nature. As a result, the wall is nearly half as light as usual. “If an A320 flies throughout the year, the airline can save three tons of kerosene and reduce the environmental impact by 30 tons of CO2,” Sander says.

The Fraport luggage robot loads up to 800 cases and bags per day.

Powerful luggage helpers

New technologies are also being used at Frankfurt Airport. Fraport has used an industrial robot to load baggage since 2014. More than 60 million passengers with over 38 million pieces of luggage are handled here annually. The seven-axis robot aids the filling of luggage containers. A conveyor belt feeds the robot with bags and cases for a specific flight. The luggage passes through a system scanner gate which measures the size and position of the baggage on the conveyor belt. Based on these measurements, an algorithm calculates the best position for the baggage in the container. The robot’s gripper arm finally takes the baggage from the conveyor belt and puts it into the container. The robot loads 600 to 800 pieces per day – more than 84 tons every week, taking a considerable physical load off of employees.
Text by Gesine Oltmanns
Photos: Airbus (2), Fraport