Airbus increasing industrial cooperation in South Africa; partnering on titanium manufacturing process

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Airbus, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and Aerosud have agree to partner on a research project to test the application of titanium powder-based Additive layer Manufacturing (ALM) for the fabrication of large and complex aerospace components. ALM promises to be faster and cheaper than conventional manufacturing processes.

The initiative is another example of Airbus’s industrial partnerships with local South African industry. The titanium ALM project is the latest in a series of Airbus Research and Technology partnerships established under a 2006 agreement with the Department of Science and Technology.

It will see Airbus, supported by EADS Innovation Works, cooperating with South African aerostructures manufacturer Aerosud and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s (CSIR’s) National Laser Centre (NLC). Together, they will test and evaluate this new approach as it is applied to producing larger-scale titanium parts at high speed by using the NLC’s expertise in high-powered lasers and laser-based manufacturing expertise.

If successful, the project could have significant cost and environmental efficiency ramifications for airlines, aircraft operators, the aerospace and other manufacturing industries in addition to boosting South Africa’s minerals beneficiation strategy, Airbus said.
“ALM involves forming an object from powder, which is arranged in layers and fused by high-speed lasers. It is a process completely devoid of bulk machining, cutting and welding thereby minimizing waste and optimizing the manufacturing process. It’s like printing in 3D,” explained the CSIR’s Hardus Greyling, project coordinator of project Aeroswift at the CSIR.

Aerosud and the CSIR NLC have been developing the innovative ALM approach under the Department of Science & Technology-funded Aeroswift project. Initial proof-of-concept studies were carried out a few months ago and based on the results a decision was made to construct a full scale prototype system to demonstrate the technology. This technology will allow the production of large geometrically complex items. “Typically focusing on parts which are prohibitively expensive or impossible to make using traditional methods,” said Aerosud Managing Director, Dr Paul Potgieter.
“SA is the second-largest supplier of (titanium) mineral ore…but adds little value to that before export,” Deputy Science and Technology Minister Derek Hanekom said at the launch of project Aeroswift in January this year. “The CSIR has developed a novel process whereby titanium metal powder can be produced from our abundant mineral resource. Currently the primary titanium process is being commercialised and a pilot plant will be built during the year.”

The heart of Aeroswift is the NLC’s new 5 kW IPG single-fibre diode laser. The CSIR NLC has already, in its proof of concept trials, achieved production speeds 8.3 times greater than currently available commercial selective laser melting machines. The proof of concept trials involved the production of small parts, no longer than 50 cm. With Aeroswift, the aim is to produce parts as big as 2 x 0.5 metres
“There is no doubt that ALM is changing the small-scale component manufacturing landscape and with Airbus joining the partnership, it will be possible to test and evaluate the manufacturing process on large components for passenger jetliners,” explained Dale King, Airbus Senior Manager International Research & Technology Projects.
“The above-mentioned projects have been supported through research and technology development funding grants of approximately R65 million over the last six years from the Department of Science and Technology” said Beeuwen Gerryts, Chief Director at the Department of Science & Technology. He said he was excited to see the ALM initiative at this stage of development and added that it was an example of the importance of global research and development.

The project is central to South Africa’s national titanium beneficiation strategy, which aims to transform the country from an exporter of raw materials to an exporter of semi-finished or finished goods, which can be sold at a premium compared with the material in its raw state. South Africa has spent R200 million since 2006 on the titanium beneficiation programme, including the ALM project.

Current manufacturing relies on traditional milling and machining where components are cut and carved out of a metal billet, a process that typically sees up to 95 percent of expensive raw material going to waste. In contrast, the ALM technique minimizes material wastage by building up a component from powder, with the optimal amount of material being consumed in the process. Any powder left over can be dusted off and used again. The potential cost savings in raw materials could potentially amount to millions of dollars on every jetliner built. In addition, the weight savings are likely to result in significant cost savings and reduced emissions through lower fuel consumption.

Aerosud expects to turn on the new titanium ALM machine in March 2013, and run it as a pilot plant. Full-scale production will start approximately two years after that. The company is collaborating with Airbus on guiding the manufacturing process for aircraft components – the titanium ALM process is a South African project involving South African funding and South African intellectual property. Components will mostly be used in engines, where heat-resistant titanium is required.
“We’re here in South Africa, we’re committed and we recognise the sills you have here,” said King, affirming Airbus’s commitment to build skills in the country.

Airbus launched its South African R&T programme in 2006 under an agreement with the Department of Science & Technology and the Department of Trade & Industry. Airbus’s South African R&T projects are coordinated through the DTI’s National Aerospace Centre. Airbus has forged partnerships with Stellenbosch University, WITS University, University of Cape Town and various units of the CSIR, working on a variety of projects.

Airbus has a long history of industrial cooperation with South African industry, and considers South Africa to be a strategic industrial partner for its range of commercial aircraft and the Airbus Military A400M airlifter.

Airbus works with three main suppliers in South Africa, Cape Town based Cobham Omnipless, Johannesburg based Denel Aerostructures and Aerosud in Centurion.

Aerosud has steadily taken on responsibility for manufacturing an increasing variety of wing and fuselage items for Airbus. They include avionics-bay racks, flap track cans and wing parts for the entire Airbus single-aisle aircraft family (A318, A319, A320 and A321) and the wing tips, galleys, rigid bulkhead and linings for the cockpit, nose fuselage and cargo hold for the A400M.

Aerosud manufactures A350 track can components for the A350 XWB through a contract awarded by Kansas based Spirit AeroSystems, one of Airbus’ major risk sharing partners on the A350 XWB programme. Aerosud is also contracted produce the CFRP Frame Clips for the centre section of the A350 XWB, which links the composite skins to the frames and stringers. The Frame Clips are the first composite airframe components of any Airbus commercial aircraft to be produced in South Africa.

Cobham provides satellite communication systems for the entire Airbus family of aircraft, including the A380 and the A350 XWB.

Denel-Saab Aerostructures hosts a dedicated A400M Design Engineering centre at its facility opposite O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. It is home to over 50 engineers tasked with the design and integration of complex hybrid assemblies for the new military aircraft. Denel-Saab Aerostructures manufactures the A400M’s top-shells and the wing-fuselage fairing. This fairing is an aerodynamically critical section of the aircraft, measuring 15.5 m long x 7 m wide x 2 m deep, making it the largest single aircraft structural component ever produced in South Africa.

Other South African suppliers for Airbus aircraft include Saab Avitronics (A400M life-time monitoring system) and AAT Composites (buyer-furnished seat components and cabin stowages certified for use in all Airbus products).

Airbus was also instrumental in the establishment of Africa NDT, a Pretoria-based non-destructive testing centre serving South Africa’s aerospace community. Africa NDT is jointly owned by NDT Expert, a Toulouse based subsidiary of Airbus’ parent, EADS, France’s industrial standards agency, Bureau Veritas and Aerosud.