Harness free aircraft? Discover how printed electronics could change the way we design aircraft

Did you know, there is around 100 km of cables inside a standard passenger aircraft? To put that into perspective: that is the distance from ground to the Karman line - the beginning of space! It’s obvious, that this impressive amount of cables accounts for high cost and a high workload during design, installation and maintenance.

Cooperation Project

In the collaborative research project ‘Printed Electrics’, Airbus and Altran investigate how to save these recurring cost and how to reduce the overall amount of cables.

Printing of electronics promises cost savings and reduces customization efforts by automating today’s production process of harnesses. With more integrated, “smart” components it also enables a more efficient electrical architecture of the cabin, which reduces the overall amount of cables needed, and thus reduces the weight of the aircraft.

Aircraft Background

Considering the growing demand for passenger aircraft, increasing the efficiency in production is key to Airbus.

Today, the manufacturing and installation of cables is mainly manual labor. As cables are manufactured overseas, it can take several weeks after an order, until the harnesses are delivered. With highly productive printers located next to the final assembly line printed electronics could be an answer to the demand for higher efficiency and an enabler for last-minute changes of the highly customized cabins.

Technology

Using functional inks filled with conductive particles and proven, conventional processes, electrical circuits can directly be printed onto thin polymer films to create flexible, lightweight conductors.

But printed electronics is more than just printing cables – with a combination of different inks, functionalities like sensors, photovoltaics, lights, batteries and even ‘intelligence’ in form of transistors can be printed. Just like on conventional circuit boards, you can also add microchips in a pick-and-place process.

Restrictions

As the printed metal layers are thin, and the conductivity of today’s ink formulations is about 95 % of that of bulk material, the technology will not compete with copper wires for high power routes. Nevertheless, for most electrical consumers inside the cabin like lighting, sensors or displays of up to several hundred watts power consumption, it is a perfect fit.

Challenges

To guarantee the safety of this new technology a comprehensive qualification & certification process has to be followed, before it can become part of an aircraft.

The most extreme tests include exposure to an open flame for 12 seconds, contact to aggressive fluids, temperatures ranging from -55 to 80 °C, or the effects of a lightning strike.

Although the technology is currently still in a research stage, the positive experience with the most demanding tests gives grounds for confidence, that the certification of the first flying part with printed electronics is possible.

Application / Benefit

In a first application, of the award winning ‘New InfoPanel’, conventional harnesses and LED signs were replaced by a printed circuit reducing weight by more than 30 % and dramatically reducing the installation time. The New InfoPanel could be part of the A320 cabin in the near future.

Outlook

Once the technical feasibility is proven and the certification has been successfully completed, the implementation across the whole aircraft fleet will follow and reveal the real potential of printed electronics.

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