BERLIN (Reuters) - Aerospace supplier Premium Aerotec has acquired a 3D printing specialist as it seeks to boost its expertise in the growing market for plane parts made by additive manufacturing and find new customers ahead of a possible ownership change.
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, involves building up layers of material to create a part.
The deal to buy APWorks, an Airbus spin-off which helps customers from the aerospace and automotive industries to identify components suitable for 3D printing, will also give Airbus-owned Premium Aerotec access to a new material, scalmalloy, a high-strength aluminium alloy.
"With this, we strengthen our position in the market very clearly and we will keep investing in this market," Premium Aerotec CEO Thomas Ehm told Reuters, declining to give the value of the deal.
Access to aerospace manufacturers other than Airbus will also help Premium Aerotec prepare for life when it is no longer owned by the European aerospace and defence group.
"Our main customer is Airbus, but we have a clear strategy to open up to more customers out there," Ehm said. "Whether or not Airbus will sell Premium Aerotec is their decision. But we were founded 10 years ago in order to be sold."
3D printing has mostly been used in prototyping in aerospace but companies are trying to get the process certified for serial production.
"Aerospace customers don't want only prototypes, they want parts that will fly," APWorks CEO Joachim Zettler said.
He said flying taxis, currently being explored by various companies in both the aerospace and automotive industry, were a future market for 3D printing.
Premium Aerotec, which uses additive manufacturing for parts in the Airbus A350 and the A400M military transporter, wants to achieve certification from European and then U.S. authorities for the additive manufacturing process, rather than having to get certification for each part. That will allow the company to scale up production.
"There are more tests than we initially thought, which is good, but we are on the way to achieving the certification this year," Ehm said.
3D printer maker Stratasys has also been investing in certification in order to make its printers more attractive to aerospace customers. At the Hamburg Aircraft Interiors show last week, it demonstrated ducts, space dividers and cup holders made by additive manufacturing.
Stratasys worked to reduce the variance in products created by its printers and has set up a database of statistical results that has been endorsed by authorities to help customers more easily certify parts.
"Now we have the database, it will drive sales," Jim Orrock, vice president product leader at Stratasys, told Reuters. "A customer can use that to gain certification more quickly than if they wanted to do it on their own."
Stratasys said on Tuesday that more than 100 parts for U.S. space agency NASA's deep-space capsule Orion will be made by 3D printers.
(Reporting by Victoria Bryan; editing by David Evans)