Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace and Defense

Additive Manufacturing in Aerospace and Defense

The aerospace and defense industries have long been characterized as being at the forefront of technological innovation. In recent years, additive manufacturing (AM) has emerged as a transformative force, propelling the aerospace and defense industry into a manufacturing revolution. With its ability to manufacture on-demand spares, streamline part design iterations, and delocalize production, AM offers unparalleled opportunities for improved efficiency and cost savings. This transformation makes it apparent that AM moves past the central narrative it has encompassed for years: that 3D printing is limited to prototyping within the aerospace and defense industries. AM is more than merely a tool for incremental improvement; rather, it proves to be a paradigm shift in the way the aerospace and defense industry conceptualizes, designs, and manufactures its assets.

The United States Department of Defense (DoD) has recognized the transformative potential of AM and has therefore incorporated it into its strategic initiatives. In January 2021, the US Department of Defense (DoD) published the Additive Manufacturing Strategy and DoD Instruction 5000.93 Use of Additive Manufacturing, providing an overarching strategy for the implementation of AM in the defense industry. The strategy was to utilize AM as an on-demand, customizable manufacturing tool to:

  • Modernize national defense systems by enhancing part designs to enable complex geometries, improve performance, and reduce weight.
  • Increase material readiness to reduce equipment downtime, increase maintenance, repair, and operation (MRO) efficiency, and ensure the military receives critical capabilities when needed.
  • Enhance Warfighter Innovation and Capability by giving tactical units a digital, secure approach to sharing innovative solutions.

This article delves into the multifaceted applications of AM in aerospace and defense. It explores its impact on aircraft maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO), design and topology optimization, and specific use cases within these critical sectors.

Advancements in Aircraft MRO and Spares

In an industry where efficiency and reliability are paramount, AM presents itself as a solution to aerospace and defense maintenance, repair, and operations (MRO). Over the years, traditional manufacturing has created aging aircraft tooling that has been misplaced or destroyed. Traditional methods of procuring tooling for aging aircraft can be time-consuming and costly, often involving long lead times and reliance on external suppliers. Moreover, tooling is required in traditional manufacturing to produce aircraft spares and tooling, creating more opportunities for bottlenecks during the manufacturing process. Eliminating the need for expensive tooling means quicker production of replacement parts for aging aircraft, ensuring fleet readiness and reducing maintenance costs.
AM also facilitates just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing, allowing manufacturers to produce components precisely when needed and eliminating the need for large stockpiles of spare parts. This approach reduces storage costs and ensures that parts are readily available, minimizing aircraft downtime. For example, the US Air Force has been leveraging AM technologies to produce critical components for legacy aircraft, such as the C-130 Hercules and F-16 Fighting Falcon. Jason McCurry, Engineering Flight Chief at the US Air Force, says that 3D printing, “will be used for the production of propulsion items such as tooling and engine parts, reducing production time by nearly 80 percent.” This satisfies the commitment to increase material readiness stated in the DoD’s Additive Manufacturing Strategy.

C-130 Hercules Aircraft

F-16 Fighting Falcon Aircraft

To further enhance supply chain resilience, AM fosters a delocalized approach to production. Contract manufacturers who are ITAR registered, like Endeavor 3D, aid in helping defense manufacturers respond swiftly to evolving demand. At Endeavor 3D, we specialize in providing end-to-end additive manufacturing solutions including part design, reverse engineering, polymer and metal production, post-processing, and quality assurance. Our scalable and flexible Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) and Metal Jet technology creates an on-demand  solution, ensuring operational continuity in the face of disruptions.

Topology Optimization of an Aerospace Part

Additive manufacturing technology has provided a fresh look at how aerospace engineers can manufacture complex parts. By leveraging 3D printing, topology optimization can be used to maximize the efficiency and structural integrity of critical components.

Topology optimization is a mathematical method used to optimize the material layout and geometric features of a part, ensuring the most efficient design and use of resources. To carry out this optimization, the user must specify a design space for the part, apply boundary conditions, and use numerical physics simulation software such as Finite Element Analysis (FEA) or Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) to calculate the effect of a representative combination of loads on the part. Once completed, the user will define an objective function that combines several key performance indicators, such as weight, fatigue, and stress, into a single parameter. The optimization algorithm then attempts to maximize this objective function by iteratively changing the part design, either generatively or by varying predefined parameters. During this process, engineers check the effect of its changes on the objective function. When executed correctly, the resulting part will meet its requirements with maximum efficiency and effectiveness.

A practical application for utilizing topology optimization in the aerospace industry is redesigning aircraft brackets. This is a critical component used to attach various systems and structures to the aircraft. For example, the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS) Innovation Works optimized the Airbus A320 cabin hinge bracket using AM and topology optimization, resulting in a 60% weight reduction compared to the original structure design.

3D printed Airbus A320 cabin hinge bracket (Source: Gartner)

Furthermore, a study published in Applied Sciences highlights the successful application of topology optimization for an aircraft bracket, resulting in a weight reduction of up to 40% compared to the original design.

Topology optimized 3D printed aerospace bracket (Source: MDPI)

When properly executed, topology optimization can produce lightweight and structurally sound aerospace parts. Additive manufacturing presents a convenient way to manufacture the organic geometries common in topology-optimized parts. Due to the layer-by-layer nature of additive manufacturing, the complexity of a part is almost trivial in predicting its cost. Part geometries that require assembly during traditional manufacturing, such as parts with lattice structures or internal passageways, can be produced as a single component. This part consolidation can significantly reduce the bill of materials (BOM) for aerospace and defense components by minimizing the quantity of materials needed for assembly and optimizing material distribution. With recent advances in polymer and metal binder jet 3D printing, topology-optimized parts can be made more cost-effectively, particularly for bridge or low-volume, high-mix production runs.

Latest 3D Printed Innovations within Aerospace and Defense

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has integrated 11 3D printed metal components into the Perseverance Rover a.k.a Percy. Five of the parts make up the shell of the PIXL instrument, a microfocus X-ray tasked with looking for signs of life on Mars. The other six parts are components of the MOXIE heat exchangers which create oxygen.

The Perseverance Rover

Lockheed Martin has created the first complex piece of hardware for spaceflight, an omnidirectional antenna for communication relay that has been integrated into a GPS III satellite. This 3D-printed part enables a satellite to communicate with ground systems on Earth. Larry Loh, Director of Engineering Technology and Advanced Manufacturing at Lockheed Martin Space, says, “This process is easily repeatable, which cuts out variabilities in the build and test process. By adopting this technology, we’re able to produce these parts within a tighter range.” Moreover, Lockheed Martin has identified cost savings of around 60% by incorporating additive manufacturing methods into their processes.

3D printed omnidirectional GPS antenna by Lockheed Martin (Source: Lockheed Martin)

The Boeing 777X has incorporated more than 300 3D printed parts into its two GE9X engines. The parts ranged from temperature sensors to heat exchangers, encompassing a wide range of component sizes. Many of the components were made of carbon fiber composites, resulting in a reduction of fuel consumption by 12%.

GE9X engine attached to Boeing’s 777X (Source: Tim Stake/Boeing)

To extend the life of the existing B-2 bomber, the B-2 Program Office turned to additive manufacturing. The technology was used to create the airframe-mounted accessory drive (AMAD) decouple switch. This component controls the connection of the engines to the hydraulic and generator of the aircraft. The aim was to create an on-demand manufacturing process and reduce operating costs during production. Roger Tyler, an aerospace engineer with the B-2 Program Office, states that, “The B-2 is a low-volume fleet. There are only 20 of them, so anytime something needs to be done on the aircraft, cost can be an issue. But with additive manufacturing, we can design something and have it printed within a week and keep costs to a minimum.”

3D printed protective cover for the airframe mounted accessory drive decouple switch in B-2 aircraft  (Source: US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center)

Conclusion

The aerospace and defense industries are embracing additive manufacturing (AM) to enhance operational efficiency and reduce downtime of legacy aircraft. By integrating advanced design techniques, such as topology optimization and generative design, AM allows for the creation of lighter and more efficient components.

Endeavor 3D stands at the forefront of this efficient approach. As a premier contract manufacturer, our expertise spans both polymer and metal 3D printing technologies, providing a comprehensive suite of services. Our capabilities in reverse engineering and 3D scanning ensure precise replication and enhancement of existing parts. Endeavor 3D’s rigorous quality assurance processes guarantee that every component exceeds industry standards.

Customers partnering with Endeavor 3D gain access to a team of professionals dedicated to crafting customized solutions that align with their specific needs. Our deep understanding of AM, combined with our advanced technological infrastructure, positions us to support dynamic, ongoing collaborations that drive innovation. Whatever stage of the product lifecycle you’re at, Endeavor 3D provides the expertise and resources necessary to cross any production threshold.

Contact a 3D printing expert today to discuss how you can harness the full potential of 3D printing for your next project.

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