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Will 3D Printers, Robots Be New Paris Air Show Stars?

BY GILLIAN RICH

Lower-than-average Boeing and Airbus orders are expected at the Paris Air Show next week due to record backlogs and saturated growth markets, giving manufacturing technologies like 3D printing a chance to shine.

Stratasys , a maker of 3D printers, will be at the show to demonstrate how its machines can use Federal Aviation Administration-approved thermoplastic materials to make prototypes, fixtures and injection molds for aircraft.

Boeing already has 20,000 3D-printed plastic parts flying around on its global fleet of jets, according to John Schmidt, a managing director at Accenture. General Electric‘s  joint venture with Snecma, CFM International, is using 3D printing for its new Leap jet engines.

“We are at the early stages where the economics are coming together with the material science,” Schmidt said of 3D printing in the aerospace sector.

As the auto industry and the U.S. Navy have found, the emerging technology has its advantages. With 3D printing, huge inventories of spare parts don’t have to be maintained, and parts can be made on demand, Schmidt notes.

Hurdles must still be overcome, as parts have to be certified and intellectual copyrights protected, he adds.

Meanwhile, robotics is another growing trend in aircraft manufacturing. Earlier this year, Boeing started using robotic machines to make wings for current-generation 737s and is using them on the new 737 Max, which began assembly last month. The company plans to automate 90% of the wing assembly process eventually, up from 70% today.

Last year, Boeing started testing a robotic machine from KUKA Systems to piece together the fuselages of 777 aircraft. Boeing said it will improve workplace safety and quality.

Aerospace manufacturing techniques like 3D printing can take a more prominent role at the Paris Air Show because the big, traditional players are adjusting to a changing landscape.

Cowen analyst Cai Von Rumohr expects Boeing and Airbus together to book fewer commercial orders than the average 387 seen in the past few years, according to a note released Monday. Their combined record backlogs already total nearly 12,000 planes.

And while Middle Eastern airlines have made blockbuster deals recently, their dispute with European and U.S. airlines over competitive practices will likely keep Emirates Airlines, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways at a lower profile next week.

The Asian aircraft market is also saturated with big orders, and European carriers are looking to buy replacements, not expand their fleets, says Robert Mann, president of aviation consultancy R.W. Mann & Co.

SOURCE – Investors.com