Sri Lanka order first Xian Y-20 “3D printing technology” aircraft

Sri Lanka will make an order for China’s gigantic Xian Y-20 cargo plane says the country’s Prime Minister. The Xian Y-20 plane is one of the first aircraft to utilize “3D printing technology” according to a series of reports, however the exact nature of how 3D printing was used is unclear.

The y-20 is an interesting prospect, as with the Boeing C-17 Globemaster no longer being produced, the Y-20 can be considered the largest military aircraft in production. The aircraft is nicknamed ‘The Chubby Girl’ by the Chinese for its large size and capacity. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, speaking to South China Morning Post, unveiled plans to acquire these Chinese aircraft.

PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, confirmed the plans to purchase the aircraft saying,

I have traveled around in some of the Chinese transport planes we have. They are good workhorses. Some people have raised questions about their quality, but I have always said, ‘Look, as far as I am concerned, I will always underwrite Chinese military transport planes.’ We will buy two more.

Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image via SaudiGazette.
Ranil Wickremesinghe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image via SaudiGazette.

The Xian Y-20 has a range of 4,850 miles while carrying 40 tons of cargo, and 2,800 miles when fully loaded. The full capacity of the aircraft is 73 tons. Interestingly, Wickremesinghe suggested plans to use the enormous military aircraft to transport tourists:

The only thing is getting the US federal aviation clearance, without which there might be insurance issues for Western tourists. Since our airports have excess capacity, we will try to get dual-use military planes that can also carry tourists. We are talking to the Chinese to see if we can get planes that can conform to these norms.

Model-Based Definition (MBD)

Most reports mention that the Xian Y-20 is only the third aircraft in the world to utilize Model Based Definition (MBD) in it’s development. MBD refers to a way in which models can be annotated to include information about the bill of materials, tolerances and other metadata that would normally be included in the 2D engineering document. This 3D digital data set can then become the authoritative source of information about the project. The only other aircraft to use MBD are the Airbus A380 (2007) and the Boeing 787 (2005). Meaning the Y-20 is the first military aircraft to use MBD to speed up manufacturing. Using MBD reportedly shortened the time spent on design by up to 40%, production time by up to 75% and manufacturing by 30%.

Creating data sets that can be accessed by users throughout the workflow (without loss of data) is also an aim of the 3DXpert design software from 3D Systems. The intention of the 3D Systems software tool is to simplify workflow by allowing users to work with both, “B-rep (boundary representation, meaning solid or surfaces) and mesh triangulation formats (e.g. STL).”

The Xian Y-20. Image via New Indian Express
The Xian Y-20. Image via New Indian Express

It has also been reported by a Chinese news outlet that the plane has used associative design technology (ADT) which reduced development time by up to eight months. This technology can be seen as relational design whereby all components of the design are mapped together in order to change in relation to one another. Meaning if an aspect of the wing design is altered, for example, then this will be mapped accordingly for the other wing. This is another aspect of the development process involving advanced 3D design for time-efficiency.

For more about how 3D printing can be used in aerospace, we recently covered a milestone development in the manufacture of DARPA’s TERN project.

Featured image of Xian Y-20 in flight. Image via PopularMechanics.