APWorks, an Airbus subsidiary focussed on additive layer manufacturing and advanced materials, is poised to become an integral part of aerospace’s future. It’s already making quite an impact on its present.
World’s largest bionic aircraft partition
APWorks made headlines with the recent unveiling of the world’s largest 3D printed bionic aircraft cabin partition. While airline passengers may hustle past this component on the way to claim overhead bin space, the innovation is noteworthy.
At 30 kg lighter than its predecessors, the partition was created using ground-breaking design technology and serves as a preview of what the aerospace industry can look forward to if it embraces additive layer manufacturing (ALM) on a larger scale.
The birth of APWorks
APWorks began as a spin-off from Airbus Innovations, first providing engineering support for the Airbus Technology Licensing initiative. At that time, Joachim Zettler, an engineer on the team with a background in production and computer-aided technologies, was granted funding to focus on advanced manufacturing from Airbus’s nursery programme, led by Otto Gies.
The nursery was also incubating Scalmalloy®, a breakthrough aluminium alloy about as strong as titanium. When the project concluded, APWorks and Scalmalloy® merged, combining ALM savvy with a unique selling point. With Gies as Chairman of the Board and Zettler as CEO, APWorks focusses on metallic ALM, also known as 3D printing, covering the entire value chain.
What does the future of flight look like?
Working hand-in-hand with customers
“We’re redesigning parts to suit the process,” Zettler says. They make proven aerospace innovations accessible to other industries, and through the process, ideas cross-pollinate. “In my discussions with customers outside the aerospace business, I get to know their needs and market demands,” he highlights. “And I can take some of this input back to the engineering teams at Airbus, who use the information to anticipate problems down the line.”
The development speed in other markets is very different to large companies like Airbus. Some have a development cycle of just two weeks from scratch to the first prototype for highly demanding and fatigue-loaded parts. “And, since no one in this fledgling industry knows yet what the most optimal design is, we’re always somehow doing R&D alongside the design process,” Zettler adds.
First 3D-printed motorcycle
To tangibly showcase its innovations, APWorks has taken a step in an unorthodox direction: they’re printing a motorcycle. Because of the confidential nature of their day-to-day projects, the bike is a concrete way to talk about what they do. “Every part of this motorcycle can be extracted in the CAD environment as well as in real life,” Zettler explains. “We can show the customer the original frame versus the topology-optimised designs specifically suited to the ALM process. We can demonstrate weight-saving measures, like the thin structures that are only possible to achieve with very strong and lightweight materials like Scalmalloy®.” And it’s not just for show. The technical boundary conditions—reaching 80 km/h in less than three seconds —have piqued the interest of motorcycle experts. “It’s a teaser for all our customers to think a little bit out of the box,” he says.
A progressive approach
3D printing will definitely change the industry.
APWorks is also currently developing the first fully 3D-printed liquid-to-liquid heat exchanger that offers a significant performance increase compared to others on the market. It can be used for both robotic and automotive applications and even in a serial production environment. “This started more as a design exercise,” says Zettler. “We showcased the idea in a marketing presentation and one of our customers jumped on it, saying, ‘Ok, nice design; now I want the hardware.’ And we thought, “Oh my god, now we have to actually make this!”
APWorks is progressive in their industrial view of 3D printing because they do it every day. Up from their first-year revenue of €300k in 2013, the company generated €2.8 million in revenue last year, and the Ottobrunn-based operation hopes to soon expand to Silicon Valley and the UK to meet customer demand. “3D printing will definitely change the industry,” Zettler forecasts. “Airbus has so many activities in this business. They see a huge potential in every area, and we share this vision.”
Bionic 3D printing Learning from nature
APWorks, Autodesk and Airbus have built the world's largest 3D printed airplane cabin component mimicking organic cellular structureView Story