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Additive Manufacturing for Aerospace: Taking Your Production to New Heights

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In the realm of aerospace manufacturing, it is no secret that there are very real challenges to finding or changing production methods for any given project. A lot of these struggles can stem from the fact that most of the time, aerospace parts must satisfy multiple different requirements simultaneously. For example, critical parts on a UAV might have to be strong enough to withstand impacts or perform high strength maneuvers while also being light enough to account for the other parts of a payload like batteries or cameras. These same parts might also need to be made of traceable material or comply with one or more industry-standard certifications to be considered usable.

Parts used in the aerospace industry must meet many requirements – and this can mean that many manufacturing options are off the table.

How Modern Additive Can Fit the Bill

While Additive Manufacturing has been around for less than other traditional means of manufacturing, modern additive manufacturing is flexible in how it can be used to solve aerospace production challenges. Many 3D printing methods can produce extremely complex geometries, which makes them ideal for weight or part-reduction solutions. Across the aerospace industry, high-performance materials such as composites, metals, and technical ceramics are available to be used when producing parts that require specific mechanical properties. Finally, many Additive companies work to ensure that their printers and materials are aerospace-certified, even for in-flight applications.

Additive Manufacturing can produce heat—or chemical-resistant parts from materials such as composites, metals, and technical ceramics (pictured).

Additive Manufacturing can create many unique and otherwise prohibitive geometries. Topology optimization for weight reduction is one such approach for designers who would like to reduce component weight.

As an in-house tool, additive manufacturing also excels at removing risk from project timelines. Even if a final product will not be manufactured using 3D printing, having the ability to rapidly prototype a concept can remove weeks or even months of outsourced turnaround time. Additive manufacturing can also be used to supplement low or mid-volume production runs, which is typically where traditional means of production can be less viable due to economies of scale. Supplementing production through manufacturing aids or even bridge tooling is also an area where additive manufacturing can excel, as these sorts of parts are often produced in extremely low quantities but are just as critical to the success of a product.

So, what are some specific additive technologies that can provide these benefits, and how feasible is it to utilize them in aerospace production? In our upcoming sections, we will explore a few specific technologies and how some aerospace companies are implementing them into their processes!

Technology Spotlight – Markforged

Our first deep dive will be with the Boston-based company Markforged. Through an extrusion-based printing process called Continuous Fiber Fabrication, Markforged composite printers are able to inlay continuous strands of fiber into a polymer matrix, forming geometry that is much stronger than either material on its own. Multiple different fiber types are available, including Fiberglass, Kevlar, and Carbon Fiber.

Composite Markforged printers can inlay continuous strands of fiber (left) into the polymer geometry of a 3D printed part.

On the polymer side, Markforged also has a broad selection of materials that are considered aerospace ready. For heat-resistant applications, customers commonly use a material known as Onyx FR, a flame-retardant variant of the Markforged Onyx polymer. ULTEM™ 9085 is also printable on the large format Markforged FX20 system, as is a high-performance PEKK material known as Vega. Each of these materials have excellent Flame Smoke Toxicity (FST) ratings, and each is reinforceable with continuous strands of Carbon Fiber – making already strong materials far stronger.

Onyx FR is just one example of Markforged materials that have excellent Flame Smoke Toxicity ratings.

With a great combination of mechanical properties and FST performance, Markforged-printed parts are often used as functional prototypes or even end-use parts. Because of their strength and rigidity, they are also commonly used as manufacturing aids such as jigs, fixtures, or CMM gauges. Due to the performance of their aerospace materials, Markforged parts can also be utilized in an in-cabin capacity.

Technology Spotlight – HP Multi Jet Fusion

Our second technology spotlight will be on the Multi Jet Fusion (MJF) printing process by HP. Like many powder-based printing methods, the Multi Jet Fusion machines can produce extremely complex geometries due to the unused powder fully supporting printed part geometry.  Each layer of printed geometry is also fused to the one before it, resulting in parts that are true-to-CAD solid and extremely close to (or are, in many cases) isotropic.

The fully supported printing process allows HP Multi Jet Fusion printers to produce extremely complex parts out of a wide range of materials – such as this single piece PA11 vacuum gripper.

One of the truly unique things about the Multi Jet Fusion printing process is that each individual layer is printed at a constant speed, regardless of how much geometry is present in that layer. With part geometry removed as a factor from build turnaround time, operators can pack their builds with dozens or even hundreds of parts, making use of the full three-dimensional build volume.

With the ability to produce extremely complex or optimized geometry, Multi Jet Fusion printers are a great solution for parts that are weight critical. Drone or UAV parts, even up to the chassis itself, are a great use-case for these printers. The mechanical properties of MJF parts also make them great as fluid or low-pressure vessels since they are both water and air-tight out of the printer. Lastly, Multi Jet Fusion printers are an ideal supplement to the overall manufacturing process. This could be via complex manufacturing aids, waste reduction initiatives, or even mid to high-volume production runs of the end-use part itself.

Application Spotlight – Aerospace Organizations Using Additive

In the closing section of today’s blog, we will look at a few aerospace companies utilizing the additive manufacturing technologies we overviewed and how moving to 3D printing has improved their overall process. Feel free to use these examples as inspiration to see if anything in your organization might benefit from being produced by additive manufacturing!

HP Multi Jet Fusion Case Study – Aurea Avionics

Our first case study will be on the company Aurea Avionics, which focuses on producing UAVs and drones. As is the case with any drone, overall weight is critical to maximizing flight time, but parts also need to be strong enough to protect high-value components. For one project, Aurea Avionics was looking to make a gimballed camera shell for one of their drones. The organization eventually decided to produce these shells via Multi Jet Fusion due to the accuracy, strength, and quick turnaround time for their parts.

An Aurea Avionics drone with an example of their Multi Jet Fusion gimballed camera shell.

Utilizing additive manufacturing allows Aurea Avionics to print these shells on-demand rather than preemptively manufacturing a large number to keep costs down. This digital inventory allows them to adjust the design of future shells if needed to account for changes like new mounting points for updated camera hardware.

Markforged Case Study – Cabin Management Solutions

For our next case study, we will switch gears to the Markforged customer Cabin Management Solutions (CMS). As the name implies, CMS develops in-cabin part replacement solutions for jets that need to be upgraded with hardware such as entertainment systems, electronic ports, or even ventilation. Because their parts are inside the cabin of an aircraft, everything produced by CMS must adhere to strict compliance requirements. However, the low-volume nature of the upgrades can make them cost and time-prohibitive to produce using more traditional manufacturing methods.

For a solution, Cabin Management Solutions uses Markforged printers and their Onyx/Carbon Fiber FR materials. This results in parts that are strong enough to withstand extended use while also having the Flame Smoke and Toxicity ratings that are needed for in-cabin parts. With additive manufacturing, CMS can also produce unique shapes without the typically associated tooling costs for distinct parts.

A 3D Printed electronic panel – further post processed to modify its appearance beyond the base material.

Markforged Case Study – JJ Churchill LTD.

Keeping with Markforged, our third case study will be for the aerospace and defense organization JJ Churchill. As is the case with many aerospace companies, JJ Churchill has extremely strict and comprehensive quality inspection procedures surrounding its flight-critical components. Like many end-use parts, Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM) fixtures must also be strong, accurate, and repeatable since deforming over time means that the inspection results will not be reliable.

That being the case, machining complex geometry to create CMM fixtures would often cost JJ Churchill days or weeks on a project due to their internal CNC queue. To save on time and cost, JJ Churchill moved their CMM fixture production over to Markforged, resulting in carbon fiber reinforced geometry that could do the same job as their prior solution.

This is a Markforged CMM fixture that JJ Churchill printed to hold a turbine blade. Compared to their prior CNC solution, this fixture was produced 70% faster and 80% cheaper.

Multi Jet Fusion Case Study – Aerosport Modeling & Design

For our final case study, we will look at the organization Aerosport Modeling & Design. As we mentioned earlier in this blog, component reduction is a common use-case for additive manufacturing, and this is what Aerosport Modeling was looking to accomplish with their rudder trim system. This assembly was originally made of twenty-six parts, and while some were simple components off the shelf, several were custom machined parts or gears that could hard-stop the entire assembly if even one was delayed.

While looking at additive manufacturing, Aerosport Modeling eventually found the Multi Jet Fusion solution. After some printing and testing, they found that MJF parts worked perfectly as substitutions for the machined geometry. To further reduce the assembly complexity, Aerosport Modeling next consolidated the entire design down to four parts total. This results in a trim system that not only functions like the prior version, but also has less reliance on even the simplest outsourced part.

A comparison of the original Aerosport Modeling rudder trim system and the Multi Jet Fusion consolidated assembly.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for taking the time to join us in today’s blog post covering additive manufacturing in aerospace! Modern additive manufacturing is extremely flexible and can be highly beneficial to the overall product development cycle. From functional prototypes to end-use part replacements, the sky is certainly the limit for users who would like to have more control over their means of production.

Of course, there are many methods of 3D printing and even more material options, so if you have any questions on how additive manufacturing could benefit you, feel free to contact us today!

Picture of Jesse Haworth

Jesse Haworth

Jesse Haworth graduated from Oregon State University and has a solid background in providing technical support in both SOLIDWORKS and additive manufacturing products. He now serves as one of our 3D Printing Application Engineers, specializing in HP and Markforged technologies. In his free time, Jesse enjoys fishing, hiking and visiting local breweries.
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