How Airbus Jets New Life Into Livery

Engineers at Airbus’ A320 Family paint shop in Hamburg, Germany, just developed a unique methodology to radically improve the creative options available to airlines and brand managers by making it possible to directly print livery on the fuselage using inkjet printers–resulting in a faster and more efficient painting process which also allows finer decorative details.

Much ado is made of aircraft liveries, some more successful than others, but for important as aircraft livery is to airline branding, it has traditionally been limited by the paint and screen process.  No more.

The application of complex, large-scale liveries on aircraft presents a considerable challenge – particularly as airlines develop increasingly artistic and complex ways to express their identities./Airbus
The application of complex, large-scale liveries on aircraft presents a considerable challenge – particularly as airlines develop increasingly artistic and complex ways to express their identities./Airbus

As Airbus explains, the direct printer works like a traditional model, using an inkjet head with nozzles spraying the same three basic colours we use on our inkjets at home and at the office (cyan, magenta and yellow) and, naturally, black.  The inkjet head is mounted on seven-square-metre bench, and prints a design line by line, from top to bottom.  A quick clear coat seals the print in place and gives the livery a mirror finish.

Technology Manager, Matthias Otto, is excited over the possibilities this new method offers airlines.  “I can create colour gradients or photo-realistic motifs that could never be achieved with paint.” he explains.  He adds that this new method can print components of any size or shape.  As Airbus explains in its announcement: “In the past, heavier printed film was used to produce complex designs, however such film is susceptible to the effects of heat, cold and high pressure, and ultimately could tear or peel.”

Airbus also makes a business case for using direct printing, instead of traditional paint methods:

“Compared with painting, where the design has to be built up by layer-by-layer, there are far fewer working and drying steps – greatly reducing the lead time. There also is no overspray or solvent vapour when ink is used, providing better working conditions for Airbus employees, as well as a healthier environment.”

Airbus is still experimenting with its inkjet method, but the aircraft manufacturer indicates that it is now at a Technical Readiness Level 6 (TRL6), and that “the associated processes will be qualified early in 2015.”

It has already incorporated the process in the A320 Final Assembly Line (FAL) benchmark initiative, and intends to take advantage of it to “stabilise scheduled lead times.”

As far as the promotion picture is concerned, the results are eye-catching.  We’ll just have to wait to find out how creative airlines will get with these new capabilities.

Featured Image: Think ink livery painting method, Airbus

Marisa Garcia

After working for sixteen years in aviation, specializing in aircraft interiors design and aviation safety equipment, and getting hands-on with aircraft cabins in hangars around the world, Marisa Garcia turned her expertise into industry insight. She has been reporting on aviation matters since 2014. Every day, she's putting words to work.

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  1. Thank you Marisa for this technical information. As brand designer we are always challenging airlines for more sophisticated livery designs. This technic will allow us to create more sophisticated schemes. But most of all it will be a precious gain of time with the paint process, with design consistency, and reducing adhesives film and mask uses (a beat more ecological), However, I wonder how the printer works over curved surfaces (if it does?). A flat surface as the tail is ok, but when it come to run the design over the fuselage rear cone and around the horizontal stabs then this is another issue ?…

    1. Thanks for writing in, Remy! I believe that the print heads do conform to a curved surface, according to the information from Airbus. I agree that it is a far more ecological solution, and better on workers–fewer toxins.

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