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Protomold has allowed Airline Components International (ACI), a company specialising in the design and manufacture of aircraft interiors, to shorten the lead time for a new part by several weeks.

When time-pressed aircraft are grounded for annual overhauls – usually for just one or two weeks at a time – companies supplying refits and maintenance services have to respond quickly to ensure they return to service without delay.

‘Our customers are very demanding,’ said James Deans, director of ACI.

‘They send us their statement of requirements or aircraft interior parts and we design, reverse engineer or re-make before the aircraft returns to operational service.

‘The window for doing so may be a matter of days,’ he added.

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

Often the design and durability of these non-safety critical fittings are, said Deans, 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 added.

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 instead of 2mm wall thickness can greatly affect the longevity of the parts.

The redesigned aircraft seat eventually goes into production, but after a while these components will fail.

‘We fix other companies’ design compromises,’ said Deans.

For many years ACI has used its own in-house FDM (fused-deposit-modelling) machine to create design prototypes before committing to external suppliers to produce steel tooling and final injection-moulded parts; this is a significant saving as production tooling can be a time-consuming and costly process.

‘We found Proto Labs from a trade CAD publication,’ said Deans.

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

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

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

‘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 to 16 weeks,’ said Deans.

‘Proto Labs told us we could have a finished, injection-moulded part in the same production-intent material without compromising performance,’ he added.

Since its first experience, ACI has used Protomold to create a wide range of parts for its many airline customers.

Everything from seat parts to carpet joiners, galley products to overhead bin components and even seat-back video surrounds.

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

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

‘When an ACI part is ready to go into production, it is much better than the original,’ he added.

Matthews also utilised Protomold’s online quoting system, Protoquote.

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

A dedicated project manager will deal with any quirks.

ACI’s reputation within the aviation industry is built on several important attributes including its ability to solve complex design problems and respond quickly when an airline needs to redesign a part or the rapid supply of interior components.

Proto Labs

Proto Labs delivers fully functional prototypes in production-intent materials to dramatically cut the cost and time normally associated with product development. This empowers designers and engineers with the means to rapidly develop, test, and get their products to market first in an ever-competitive global market place.

Proto Labs delivers fully functional prototypes in production-intent materials to dramatically cut the cost and time normally associated with product development. This empowers designers and engineers with the means to rapidly develop, test, and get their products to market first in an ever-competitive global market place.

Protomold delivers injection-moulded parts from moulds manufactured utilising state-of-the-art high-speed CNC machining technologies. Parts can be moulded using almost any engineering-grade resin and are ideal for prototyping, bridge tooling and low-volume production.

First Cut satisfies the need for functional prototypes much earlier in the development cycle for quantities of 1–10+. Because First Cut delivers prototypes in engineering-grade resins and aluminium they will have real material properties and improved surface finishes. In other words, they will be functional.

When you submit your 3D CAD model, Proto Labs’ powerful super-compute cluster creates an interactive quote giving pricing options and where appropriate, suggesting changes to improve manufacturability. You simply interact with your quote online, tailor options such as material and delivery to your requirements and with every change, the pricing information automatically updates. This built-in ‘what-if’ analysis enables last-minute project refinements to be accommodated at the click of a button.

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