Q&A with Joachim Zettler, MD, Airbus APWorks


This interview is is an extract from‘New Fusions in Advanced Materials Innovation and Corporate Venture Capital’, a new report from LEIF and Global Corporate Venturing, which is sponsored by Airbus APWorks and Saudi Aramco Energy Ventures (SAEV), the corporate venture capital subsidiary of Saudi Aramco.

Joachim Zettler is the MD of Airbus APWorks, is the additive manufacturing (3D printing) and advanced materials subsidiary of Airbus Group, the European aerospace and defence company.  Established in 2013 and located near Munich, Airbus APWorks collaborates with the AIRBUS Group research and technology arm Airbus Group Innovations, as well as Airbus Commercial, Airbus Helicopters and Airbus Defence & Space.  In addition to developing and optimising new materials and parts for Airbus, APWorks is also serving companies in the robotics, automotive and medical technology industries in Europe and North America. When APWorks was established in 2013, Joachim Zettler became its founding MD, after previously working as an Airbus project engineer specialising in production technology.

LEIF: What does APWorks offer its clients? 

Joachim Zettler: We offer new advanced materials, such as our proprietary alloy Scalmalloy®, and advanced manufacturing services such as 3D printing. There are lots of 3D printers in the world and soon there will be many more. APWorks is unique in being able to combine fast 3D printing – the fastest in the world we believe – with design optimisation based on Airbus expertise in advanced materials, complex technologies and manufacturing process solutions.

LEIF: What is Scalmalloy®? What are its properties?

Scalmalloy® is Airbus Group’s second-generation aluminium-magnesium-scandium alloy (AlMgSc). It was developed for high and very high-strength extrusions, offering exceptionally high fatigue properties. But I want to stress that we are also keen to work with others’ proprietary materials. We can help optimise their manufacturing.

LEIF: What are the most important markets for Scalmalloy®?

We believe that Scalmalloy® will be a transformative material for all industries that have fast moving parts that bear heavy loads. Outside of Airbus, we foresee its most rapid adoption in the robotics and automotive industries where interest is already strong. For a new material to be used in aviation it not only has to be innovative, it has to pass the most rigorous development, manufacturing and safety programme. So it’s not surprising that a new material developed in one highly demanding industry is sought other completely different industries. We’re very happy to see this.

LEIF: What are your target industries and commercial priorities?

JZ: We are prioritising the design and small series production of fast moving heavily-loaded parts found in the robotics, automotive, aviation and other hardware industries. These industries share the fundament goal of combining strength and light weight that Scalmalloy® provides, and that we can help deliver through advanced manufacturing.

LEIF: What is the potential of 3D printing?

JZ: In the next two to three years, rapid prototyping and small series production of parts used in robots, planes, cars and medical devices is going to be what 3D printing does best. Despite the hype, I believe that in the short to medium term 3D printing will not replace mainstream manufacturing. So APWorks is focusing on our priority markets (as mentioned already) where we know that 3D printing can quickly help perfect prototype products. In some cases we will go on to manufacture these products for market. In other cases, the products may be manufactured with conventional techniques and processes after we have optimised the design.

LEIF: What is the relationship between advanced materials and advanced manufacturing? Does one automatically go hand-in-hand with the other?

Through advanced manufacturing, we can achieve significant incremental improvements in the properties of in common materials like aluminium. But to make radical progress in lightness, strength and ductility we need advanced materials, which will achieve their full potential when combined with advanced manufacturing. This is what we can do with Scalmalloy®. For example, robots are seen as very cool right now and some certainly are. But most robots are still using conventional materials that are manufactured conventionally. Robotics will only really begin to fulfil their potential when advanced materials are combined with advanced manufacturing. Through the 3D printing of the Scalmalloy® powder, we can ensure that the scandium, which is one of its most important components, remains in an over-saturated condition. This gives the part we’ve manufactured incredible strength and ductility. This can’t be done with conventional manufacturing. It’s like baking a cake. You want the sugar evenly distributed throughout. It’s no good if it’s concentrated in one place. 3D printing spreads the crucial ingredients evenly throughout.

LEIF: Why has APWORKS been set up as a separate company?

JZ: APWorks remains core to Airbus. We sit within the research centre. But it was necessary to establish it as a start-up within the overall group, as the research centre itself is not structured for external business and commercialisation. But Airbus is the right company to help APWorks reach its full potential so it will remain within the Group.

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