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Flying High with Rapid Manufacturing

SpecialChem / Mar 1, 2010

It is well-known that rapid prototyping techniques such as laser sintering have become commonplace as methods for making short-run manufacturing parts. Hearing aid shells are probably the best-known example: manufacturers make a digital scan of a patient's ear cavity, then use prototyping techniques to make a shell that fits exactly. But other industries are also taking note. The automotive sector, for example, uses these methods to make small production runs of components. Now the aerospace industry is also weighing up how it might use these techniques - and in many cases believes they could deliver environmental benefits. On paper, it would seem that these techniques are ideal for the aerospace industry's needs: mid-range production runs; high accuracy; and efficient use of material. But the industry's natural conservatism means that the techniques must be put through their paces before they can hope to be adopted. "To get these techniques qualified for aircraft manufacture will be a major challenge and also will take lots of time and investment," says Ian Risk, head of EADS Innovation Works at Airbus UK. "To justify the investment and commitment needed for a test programme, we must be able to see the potential." Risk was one of several speakers at the recent TCT conference in the UK to address the potential of additive layer manufacturing (ALM) techniques for the aerospace industry. He believes that the techniques could help Airbus to meet some of its environmental commitments, by allowing further weight reductions and cutting material wastage. "ALM will take us away from the old 'machining' ways of the past," he says. "I don't think we're at the end of the machining era, but I think we're at the end of the beginning."

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