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European aviation giant Airbus has long been at the forefront of implementing 3D printing technology in manufacturing processes. As well as rapid prototyping, more than 1,000 final production plastic and metal parts have been used on various aircraft including the A350 and A320 since 2015. The company has recently reached another milestone, as it debuted the first 3D printed part that will be visible to passengers. A 3D printed spacer panel was installed in the cabin of a A320 jet, which is being operated by Finnair.

Spacer panels are used when the design of an aircraft’s cabin layout is updated.  When these modifications occur, gaps can often be left between different parts and components due to the change in dimensions and other issues, so spacer panels help to bridge these gaps. This particular 3D printed spacer panel will be used to fill a gap at the end of a row of overhead storage compartments.

Passengers using Finnair’s service will be able to see the new 3D printed spacer panel on the A320, whereas previous 3D printed parts were only installed behind panels, hidden from view. The reason for this is the stringent aesthetic standards Airbus has for its aircraft cabins. The way a cabin looks might seem like a trivial issue compared to something like the engine design. However, a visual environment can have a huge impact on passenger’s comfort, and their perception of the quality of components will affect their feelings of safety and confidence, in what is often perceived as a risky form of transport. 3D printed plastic parts can sometimes look to be lower quality than they actually are, and Airbus wanted to avoid passengers making this assumption.

The design of the panel was much more sophisticated than ones previously used, due to the advanced capabilities of 3D printing technology. It uses a bio-inspired lattice support structure, which enabled a 15 percent weight reduction. This same structure would have taken significantly longer to produce using injection molding techniques, and would’ve been more costly due to the small quantities that were required. This kind of small-batch production for modifications and replacement parts is a key area where 3D printing can offer huge advantages to aerospace manufacturing and maintenance. After printing, the spacers were painted, and both the print material and paint were highly flame-retardant, for obvious reasons.

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