If you’ve had to unpack your overweight suitcases before a
line of unsympathetic air travelers, you know how much load—and, moreover, fuel
consumption—matters to airliners. In 2011, German aircraft manufacturer Airbus approached technology and
software developer giant Autodesk with
its vision of a concept airplane envisioned for the year 2050, said Autodesk chief
technology officer Jeff Kowalski at the most recent Autodesk
University (AU) opening keynote. This plane of the future would not only
have interchangeable seat configurations and a dynamic multipurpose space, but
it would also take on the onus of lightening its load with a super-strong and
super-efficient structural skeleton (which would lead to some incredible
star-gazing if the half-glazed fuselage rendered in the video can be realized).
Using generative design software tools, 3D printing, and advanced materials, a collaboration that includes Airbus; Autodesk; New York–based The Living, an Autodesk Studio; and German production and additive-manufacturing company APWorks, an Airbus Group subsidiary, kicked off this ambitious project in a realistic fashion—modestly. The resulting bionic partition, which debuted on the AU main stage, combines the progressive movement in engineering and design to draw inspiration and efficiency from nature and biological systems with the humble dividing wall of a plane found in areas such as the tail, separating the galley and seating areas. It also looks like a nightmare of a truss structure to analyze and fabricate. But that’s where technology comes in.
First, the constraints. Besides the structural loading requirements, the partition had to include a knockout for stretchers to pass through the cabin in emergency situations, and support the fold-down jump seats for cabin attendants during take-off and landing, according to The Living’s website.
To ascertain the partition’s structural skeleton, The Living
principal David Benjamin says, in an email, that his generative design process
used two “biological algorithms: one at the macro scale of cross-bracing for
the overall partition, and one at the micro scale of a lattice that makes up
At the macro scale, The Living developed an algorithm based on the “adaptive networks of slime mold,” which grows and stretches its form to connect a set of points—or locations of food—with the minimum number of lines. It also has built-in redundancy; each point is connected with at least two lines so if one fails, the point is still connected to the network, or slime body.
At the micro scale, The Living used “a logic similar to bone growth, where local regions of high stress become denser [and vice versa],” Benjamin says. “This is a complex problem to solve because there are several different critical load cases and more than 66,000 micro lattice bars in the partition.” The studio then used Autodesk’s generative-design software Dreamcatcher to iterate tens of thousands of partition-design layouts, according to an article in 3D Printing Industry.
“We can harness the power of generative design to create,
evaluate, and evolve thousands or hundreds of thousands of design options
according to our criteria, which could involve structure, weight, airflow,
energy, or even aesthetics or public space in some design problems,” Benjamin says
in his email to ARCHITECT.
The final partition design displaces 8 percent (9 millimeters) less than the Airbus A320’s existing honeycomb-composite partition construction under a forward acceleration of 9 g-forces. The entire partition can be printed in ready-to-assemble parts using SLM (selective laser melting) printing and Scalmalloy, a lightweight, high-strength, aluminum, magnesium, and scandium alloy created by APWorks specifically for 3D printing. The bionic partition is currently the world’s largest, metal 3D-printed aircraft component and the largest use case of Scalmalloy in an airplane.
Back to that initial goal of reducing fuel consumption. “The heart of the project is sustainability, as lighter airplanes mean lower fuel consumption and carbon emissions,” Benjamin says. The bionic partition clocks in at approximately 35 kilograms (77 pounds), or roughly 45 percent less than a standard partition on an Airbus A320, which weighs about 65 kilograms (143 pounds).
Replacing the Airbus A320’s four partition walls with the bionic partition on the number of backordered planes could save up to 465,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year, Airbus estimates—or, as Kowalski stated during the AU opening keynote, the equivalent of removing 96,000 passenger cars from the road.
Yesterday, Airbus delivered its first A320neo, the “most
fuel efficient single aisle aircraft,” to airliner the Lufthansa Group,
according to a press
release, which adds that the aircraft burns 15 percent less fuel than existing aircraft
due to new engine-jet technology. No mention yet of
the bionic partition, which is currently undergoing “16G crash testing as part
of the process for certification and integration into [Airbus’s] current fleet
of A320 planes,” according to The Living’s
website. But Airbus is already touting its foray into bionic design.