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3D printing, married to traditional metal casting, could reshape manufacturing

Lucas Mearian | June 19, 2017
A proof-of-concept project could save airlines hundreds of millions of dollars.

autodesk 3D printing
Credit: Autodesk research scientist Andreas Bastian created a 3D design used to print a plastic airline seat frame. That plastic seat frame was then coated in ceramic material and heated until the plastic evaporated. The resulting ceramic mold was then used to metal cast the new seat frame.

Autodesk has partnered with a Michigan foundry in a 3D printing proof-of-concept project that resulted in a new magnesium commercial airline seat frame so light it could save an airline more than $200 million in fuel costs.

Autodesk used its Netfabb 3D design software to produce a complex geometric model for a new aircraft passenger seat frame just as strong as a traditional seat, but vastly lighter.

netfabb optimisation 3D printing
Autodesk. The CAD image of the airline seat frame created using Netfabb 3D design software.

The CAD program created a file used to 3D print in plastic the seat frame, which was then coated in ceramic material and heated to a high temperature to evaporate the inner plastic.

The remaining ceramic mold was then used by Aristo Cast, a Michigan foundry, to manufacture a magnesium seat frame that weighs 766 grams, 56% lighter than the conventional 1,672-gram aluminum seats in use today.

While laser sintering, another 3D printing method, offers the ability to create objects with dozens of metals, it is slow compared to metal casting, which can use thousands of metals or composite materials.

Additionally, 3D printing is limited to the relatively small size of a print beds - only a few feet in size -- even in commercial machines. Traditional metal casting has nearly limitless production scalability.

With the resulting ceramic mold, Aristo Cast confirmed it could make up to 160 of the magnesium airplane seats every two days.

seatframe close up
Autodesk. The magnesium seat frame created using a CAD program, a 3D printer and traditional metal casting techniques. On the right is the intricate latticework that resulted in a vastly lighter, yet strong seat frame.

Autodesk and Aristo Cast claim that if an aircraft maker such as Airbus were to replace all 615 seats on its A380 jets with the new, lighter magnesium seat frames -- across a fleet of 100 planes which typically have a 20-year lifespan -- the move would save  $206 million, based on average jet fuel costs in 2015. Along with reducing fuel costs, the new seats could also mean 126,000 fewer tons of C02 emissions if used on a single model aircraft.


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