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Airline Components International (ACI) has been using prototype and short-production-run injection-moulded parts from Proto Labs to make replacement components for aircraft interiors.

‘[Customers] send us their statement of requirements or aircraft interior parts and we design, reverse engineer or remake them before the aircraft returns to operational service,’ said James Deans, director of ACI.

When airlines order a new aircraft from a manufacturer such as Boeing or Airbus, the interior and other fittings are sourced from specialist companies.

According to Deans, the design and durability of these non-safety critical fittings are often compromised during development in an effort to reduce weight and cost.

‘A design concept such as a new seat may have been approved by the airline’s marketing department, but it can be blocked if they think it’s too heavy or too expensive,’ he said.

The compromise may be to use a plastic material for parts such as the seat trim items under their recommended tolerance.

For example, a 1.2mm wall thickness rather than a 2mm wall thickness can affect the longevity of the parts.

The redesigned aircraft seat goes into production, but these components may, in time, fail.

According to Deans, ACI essentially fixes these design compromises.

For many years, the company has used its own in-house fused-deposit-modelling (FDM) machine to create design prototypes before committing to external suppliers to produce steel tooling and final injection-moulded parts.

Deans continued: ‘Initially, we were looking for a company that could produce larger prototype models than we could in house.

‘We were delighted when we discovered that, as well as making prototype injection-moulded parts, Proto Labs could also deliver short production runs that are so much more time-effective than traditional injection-moulding suppliers,’ he said.

At the time, ACI was working on a project creating large injection-moulded parts for the Royal Air Force.

Deans added: ‘The steel tooling for this one small project was going to cost more than GBP200,000 and the finished parts were going to take 12-16 weeks.

‘Proto Labs told us we could have a finished, injection-moulded part in the same production-intent material without compromising performance in our hands in one, three, five or 15 business days,’ he said.

Since its first experience, ACI has used Protomold to create a range of parts for its airline customers, including seat parts, carpet joiners, galley products, overhead bin components and seat-back video surrounds.

Will Matthews, design manager, said: ‘In the past few years, ACI has invested in its design and testing capabilities.

‘We have in-house reverse-engineering capabilities, finite-element analysis and stress, strain, cyclic loading and fatigue testing facilities,’ he added.

He also realised the benefit of Protoquote: the Protomold online quoting system.

The system takes an existing 3D computer-aided-design model and uses a super compute cluster to process the model and design tooling.

Matthews continued: ‘Using Protomold has allowed us to shorten the lead time for a new part by several weeks.

‘That means customers can order parts when the aircraft is grounded and have them fitted and back flying within the allotted maintenance window,’ he said.

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