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Optimizing Airplane Seat Frame using Additive Manufacturing

Case Study

Combining additive manufacturing with metal casting to create an airplane seat frame that is 54% lighter.

A pilot project conducted by the Autodesk Research Group demonstrates how generative design technology and hybrid manufacturing could save the airlines millions of dollars while significantly reducing carbon emissions.

Using generative design and digital optimization can generate high-performance geometries in the computer realm; nonmetal additive manufacturing brings that shape into the physical space as a mold; and modern casting methods finalize that shape using the right metal for the job.


Optimized airplane seat design to reduce fuel costs

The aviation industry is responsible for a huge fraction of the world's CO2 emissions. While airplane seat frames are relatively small pieces, there are hundreds of them per aircraft and the weight really adds up.

Autodesk research teams are exploring ways to optimize the design of airplane seat frames to reduce fuel costs and carbon dioxide emissions.  In its pilot project, the team used generative design technology to create a strikingly different, lattice-based seat frame for production.

“While additive manufacturing holds great promise for the future of manufacturing, it’s still very new for many product developers. Casting, by contrast, has been around for millennia and is incredibly well understood. There are hundreds of thousands of engineers, foundries, and factories with deep expertise in it. That’s one of the reasons I am looking for a bridge between the two,” explains Autodesk’s research scientist Andreas Bastian.

Combining 3D printing with metal casting

Bastian’s answer to the problem was to combine the best aspects of additive manufacturing and the casting process. Since 3D printing handles the complexity of the lattice geometry far better than other metal-forming technologies, this method was used to print positive molds or patterns of the seat frames in plastic. The patterns were then used to create ceramic molds for casting, which provides a much more affordable way for producing the seat frames in larger quantities.

Bastian teamed up with Jack Ziemba and Paul Leonard of Aristo Cast, a foundry in Michigan. CEO Ziemba and VP Leonard jumped at the chance to collaborate on the project. They even saw an opportunity to further reduce the weight of the seatframe: cast it in magnesium instead of the aluminum typically used for airplane seats. Magnesium casting is complicated, but it’s 35 percent lighter than aluminum, and Aristo Cast was up for the challenge.


Combining Additive Manufacturing with Proven Metal Casting Processes

The convergence of generative design, additive manufacturing, and metal casting has the possibility to rewrite the rules of lightweighting in dozens of applications in aerospace, automotive, medical devices and other industries. Generative design eliminates excess material in unexpected ways. Casting lets manufacturers use proven production techniques to manufacture higher volumes of parts. And additive manufacturing is the bridge between these two worlds, helping foundries cut costs in unexpected ways and produce high-performance parts out of a wide variety of materials.

New seat frame was 54% lighter than a conventional one

Extrapolating out from their prototype seat frames, Bastian teamed up with Pier 9 resident Rhet McNeal and did some eye-popping calculations. At just 766 grams, each individual seat frame is 54% lighter than the conventional 1672g aluminum seats in use today – with the design optimization accounting for 30% of the weight reduction and the magnesium accounting for the other 24%. So if an aircraft maker, say Airbus, were to replace all 615 seats on its A380 jets with the new seat frames and did it across a fleet of 100 planes which typically have a 20-year lifespan, how much money would be saved?

Bastian figures that would save the airline a whopping $206,648,920 based on average jet fuel costs in 2015. Perhaps even more consequential, the fuel reduction also translates into a reduction of 126,000 tons of C02 emissions over that same period. That’s the equivalent of removing 80,000 cars from the road for a year.

“The intent is to show the power of combining Autodesk’s advanced technologies in generative design and additive manufacturing with a much more widely-used fabrication process: casting. Yes, there are great applications for aerospace, but this combination can also be used in automotive, medical devices, industrial equipment, and many other fields.”

- Andreas Bastian, Research Scientist, Autodesk