How Airbus uses virtual reality and 3D printing to help make and sell planes

HAMBURG - Picking aircraft seats, carpets and other fittings used to be a tedious task for airline executives who had to plough through different sketches and catalogues, and then imagine the final product.

Today, a customer can be taken on a tour of the completed plane before it is even built, thanks to virtual reality and 3D technology.

"Customers are able to see what they will get at the end, right at the beginning," said Mr Michael Lau, programme manager of cabin design at Airbus.

Airbus offered a glimpse of the cutting edge technology currently in use in the industry at its Customer Definition Centre in Hamburg, Germany, on Monday (Dec 11) - as it prepares to deliver Singapore Airline's latest A-380 on Wednesday.

It set up the centre in 2014 and is currently planning to nearly double the size of facility to over 8,000 sq m.

Works started in April  this year and will be completed before the end of next year.

The extra space will allow Airbus to provide a similar experience for airlines that have ordered the single-aisle A-320 and A-330 wide-body aircraft.

Apart from virtual reality, Airbus is also ramping up on other technology, including 3D printing of aircraft parts which promises to cut waste and production time, among other benefits.

Such parts - mainly small pieces attached to aircraft seats for example - are already flying on Airbus aircraft, the plane maker said.

As technology advances and production costs decrease, "we may indeed imagine that one day most of the structure will be made of 3D-printed parts", a spokesman said.

In Singapore, SIA Engineering (SIAEC) is also pushing for innovation in aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul services.

The move towards automation, including 3D printing of aircraft spare parts, is part of a $50-million initiative announced in 2016 to push for innovation in aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul.