3D printing technology has the potential to revolutionise entire sectors and especially aviation; a belief also held by Dr. Thomas Ehm, Chairman of the Managing Board of Premium AEROTEC. The company, a subsidiary of Airbus, supplies large structural components for constructing civil and military aircraft. When the new branch of Premium AEROTEC opened in Hamburg-Finkenwerder in July, Ehm said: “Our clear goal is to become a leader in additive manufacturing and in the use of composite materials.” Ehm discusses this and other objectives with Hamburg News.
Hamburg News: Experts say a 3D printer might produce the first, entire aircraft by 2025. Do you think that is realistic?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: Not by 2025, but I do believe that vision is realistic. And we are right up there, when it comes to turning this vision around. Plenty remains to be done in terms of developing 3D technology, but much has already been achieved. Premium AEROTEC is the first manufacturer worldwide to deliver a series of 3D printed structural components for Airbus aircraft. We won the Innovation Prize in German Aviation 2017 with our 3D printed titanium bracket for the A350 XWB.
Hamburg News: What are the revolutionary advantages of 3D printing?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: What counts in aviation is weight! A lighter structure means cost advantages. The lighter an aircraft, the less fuel is needed. That saves money and reduces harmful emissions. Every kilogramme saves weight and thus CO2 – and environmental protection is gaining ever more importance in aviation.
Hamburg News: But are the printed components stable?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: Definitely. During 3D printing, a laser beam melts pulverised raw material into wafer-thin layers of material to form an individually designed component. We take great inspiration from natural paragons such as bone structures. They are quite stable, but this has not been achieved with chip cutting procedures so far. Thanks to additive, serial production, we can also print individual parts depending on demand and without severe economic losses.
Hamburg News: So is 3D printing an economic manufacturing procedure?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: At present, we are working on raising cost efficiency. Our goal is to automate the entire process of industrial 3D printing and we are pursuing this objective among others with the “NextGenAM” project for Daimler and EOS, who are leading technology providers in 3D printing of metals and plastics, and whom we have gained as partners. At the moment, steps in the process before and after printing account for around 70 per cent of costs. There is considerable potential for improving efficiency.
Hamburg News: Are there other projects focusing on innovative technologies?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: We launched the digitalisation strategy at Premium AEROTEC in 2015. Our employees have three months to find and try out new ideas. We do not continue with unviable approaches. But if an approach appears promising, as in the case of the Cobot robot that works with people, the team is given even more support. This strategy has proven worthwhile. Today, we are technologically well positioned. One thing is for certain; digitalisation will come and bring considerable, disruptive change.
Hamburg News: Where will this disruptive change occur in your opinion?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: The question is: which area will not be impacted? It begins with design. As soon as the design has been built, it becomes a standard, automated product. Then machines can take over the process. Design is the decisive part of the value-adding 3D printing chain. Another example is maintenance and servicing. Today, many employees in a company regularly carry out maintenance and do optic and haptic checks on all kinds of components. In the near future, artificial intelligence will be better able to perform such checks. Thinking ahead, quality problems will not even arise because artificial intelligence identifies the cause and eliminates it. We do not simply want to wait for this to happen and instead aim to play an active role therein.
Hamburg News: You need clever minds for such an objective. How are you positioned?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: We employ around 130 staff from 20 nations with very different skills in Hamburg where our focus is on development. The co-operation has been very beneficial so far. Lateral thinkers are needed to develop novelties… people who bring different ways of seeing and doing things and come from diverse sectors and disciplines. We can push projects ahead with them at our company and at the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL) soon where some of our employees are trying out new ideas. Hamburg is an important location for us with numerous scientific institutes, innovative universities and colleges, and many partners and suppliers in aviation. A “Silicon Valley of the North” has developed here. These factors led us to Hamburg and because we wanted to be close to Airbus, our client.
Hamburg News: But will you remain here? There has been speculation that Airbus wants to sell Premium AEROTEC?
Dr. Thomas Ehm: A sale has been part of our strategy since the company was established. Premium AEROTEC was founded in 2009 because Airbus wanted to focus more on core business. Meanwhile, we count among the leading, global developers and producers of structures and production systems for civil and military aircraft. We have factories in Augsburg, Bremen, Nordenham and Varel as well as in Brasov, Romania. We are attractive to potential purchasers as we are economically well positioned, have good prospects and earn EUR 2 billion in annual turnover. A decision on our future has not been taken. And we have just invested around EUR 1 million in our new development centre in Hamburg, and believe we are on a good path. We are a leader in metallic 3D printing in aviation and are consistently developing this new technology to expand it’s range of applications and in Hamburg as well.
Interview by Yvonne Scheller