How Innovative 3D Printing Solutions Are Tackling the Counterfeit Parts Crisis in Aircraft MRO


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IFS

Charles R. Goulding and Preeti Sulibhavi discuss the transformative impact of 3D printing on the aviation Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) industry.

Maintenance, repair and overhaul, or MRO, is the global business segment of maintaining, repairing and operations related to caring for existing aircraft. With the two main original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), airplane manufacturers meaning Airbus and Boeing not able to manufacture the volume needed of new aircraft because of supply chain problems the MRO business is experiencing record sales.

Providing quality after-market aircraft replacement parts is a tremendous opportunity for the 3D printing industry.

Need for Genuine Parts

The aircraft component industry is currently in turmoil due to recent instances of counterfeit and defective parts. The aircraft industry needs to ensure that they are providing genuine approved parts.

AOG Technics, a UK company, was recently accused of selling parts with forged certificates and falsified documents. CFM International, a jet-engine manufacturer, whose co-owners are General Electric and Safran, claimed in a British High Court that AOG Technics had been “deliberate, dishonest and sophisticated” in their actions to deceive the market.

In another unfortunate turn of events, in August 2023 Boeing discovered that MAX fuselages built by Spirit AeroSystems (Spirit) had been delivered with improperly drilled holes in the aft pressure bulkhead (the heavy metal dome capping the back end of the passenger cabin that is essential to maintaining cabin pressure).

There is a pressing need for extensive repair work on hundreds of MAX airplanes, though it doesn’t pose an immediate threat to safety. The CFO of Boeing, Brian West, stated that this situation will result in a financial loss for the company in the current quarter.

During April 2023, it was discovered by Boeing that certain fittings which connect the MAX’s vertical tail fin were incorrectly produced by a subcontractor to Spirit. This manufacturing error hindered the distribution of MAX aircraft to airlines in the busiest season of summer.

OEMs along with multi-tier suppliers offer MRO parts. These OEMs continue to expand their capabilities in 3D printing.

The A350 XWB features a thousand 3D printed parts [Source: Airbus]

Airbus and Boeing are the largest OEM suppliers with 3D printing experience.

Airbus

Airbus is one of the leaders in aviation that has been integrating 3D printing technology into its products. Airbus is recognized as having over one thousand 3D printed components in the Airbus A350 XWB aircraft.

It has been actively working with Stratasys and Materialise to integrate 3D printed parts into its airline cabins. By using 3D printing, Airbus was able to create bio-inspired panels 15 percent lighter than using conventional production methods. This technology also enables the creation of complex internal support structures, such as lattices inside the panels, without imposing additional manufacturing costs.

Boeing

Boeing is very familiar with utilizing 3D printing technology for aerospace and defense manufacturing capabilities and for fueling further innovation.

Boeing has gone on record stating that 3D printing has lowered lead times and machining time while enabling design enhancements that improve both the efficiency and safety of their parts. 3D printing has help reduce component expenses and has enabled the production of spare parts and replacement parts in the field.

Engineer at Boeing using 3D printers to maximize efficiency and safety. [Source: Boeing]

Lockheed System for Quality Parts

Lockheed has a rigorous system to ensure all its external suppliers provide quality parts. This system includes third-party certifications from accredited firms that all parts meet Aerospace Standard (AS) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO) or quality management System (QMS) approvals. If, for any reason, there is a change in standard, Lockheed must be notified in writing 10 days prior. Even manufacturing relocations must be reported to Lockheed.

In 2023, Lockheed produced two large 3D printed titanium domes for a high-pressure tank responsible for holding fuel onboard satellites in orbit. The two domes were created as part of a multi-year development program to create large, high-powered, all-mission capable satellite buses, known as the LM 2100 series.

Rick Ambrose, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Space has stated, “Our largest 3D printed parts to date show we’re committed to a future where we produce satellites twice as fast and at half the cost.”

OEMs, like Airbus, Boeing, Lockheed, Rolls-Royce, Pratt & Whitney/Raytheon, and GE (engine parts-makers), often dominate the MRO market. However, many leading Tier suppliers also play a significant role in the MRO market.

Heico Corp, Transdigm Group, and Lufthansa Group are among the major non-OEM suppliers with expertise in 3D.

Heico Corp

Heico Corp manufactures parts and components similar to OEMs, but at a lower cost, potentially due to 3D printing. According to Victor Mendelson, founder and CEO of Heico Corp, airlines have benefited from having an alternative source of supply in terms of parts availability, quality, and pricing.

Heico employs 3D printers in numerous ways. Through its Connect Tech capabilities, it possesses an engineering group equipped to undertake custom designs when standard options fail to suit the project needs. Its manufacturing and testing services are inclusive of devices such as 3D printers.

Additionally, the 3D printers are also deployed within their 3D PLUS SAS platform. This novel technology catalogue is designed for stacking heterogeneous active, passive, opto-electronics and MEMS/MOEMS devices within a compact, lightweight package. Owing to its 3D printers, Heico has established itself as a global pioneer in the field of microelectronic products.

In a bid to broaden its generic aircraft parts offering, Heico is in the midst of acquiring the Wencor Group for a total sum of US$2.05 billion.

TransDigm Group

TransDigm is the firm in charge of supplying seatbelt buckles, latches for overhead bins, and vents made of extruded plastic, which distribute conditioned air within the cabin, for airplanes. TransDigm’s product range encompasses valves, pumps, cables, connectors, and even lavatory faucets, drain mechanisms, and door locks. It’s worth noting that a significant number of these items can be efficiently produced using 3D printing techniques.

A while back, the TransDigm Group purchased Extant Components Group, a US-based MRO provider. Extant is renowned for delivering a wide range of unique aftermarket products and MRO services to the aerospace and defense sectors. This strategic acquisition should enable TransDigm to further optimize MRO growth opportunities.

Lufthansa Group

Lufthansa Technik AG, the MRO division of the Lufthansa Group, handles MRO operations and also sells aviation products and aircraft components to original equipment manufacturers like Airbus and Boeing. Lufthansa Technik utilizes 3D printing for a variety of in-flight items, one being Guide U escape route indicators for aircraft interiors. These indicators are photoluminescent (capable of glowing in the dark during emergencies, with no need for electricity), and they are patented and made using 3D printing.

Guide U light strips that were developed using 3D printing for tooling [Source: Formlabs]

The Research & Development Tax Credit

The now permanent Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit is available for companies developing new or improved products, processes and/or software.

3D printing innovation can help boost a company’s R&D Tax Credits. Wages for technical employees creating, testing and revising 3D printed prototypes can be included as a percentage of eligible time spent for the R&D Tax Credit. Similarly, when used as a method of improving a process, time spent integrating 3D printing hardware and software counts as an eligible activity. Lastly, when used for modeling and preproduction, the costs of filaments consumed during the development process may also be recovered.

Whether it is used for creating and testing prototypes or for final production, 3D printing is a great indicator that R&D Credit eligible activities are taking place. Companies implementing this technology at any point should consider taking advantage of R&D Tax Credits.

Conclusion

The high margins in the MRO aftermarket parts business will remind the OEMs how lucrative the aftermarket business is. Likewise, the suppliers will enjoy better margins on proprietary parts than what they obtain from the OEMs. Both enhanced income streams will benefit the 3D printing industry and support further innovation.  

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“Why did the 3D printer go to therapy? Because it had too many layers of unresolved issues!”


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