What began as a prototyping concept, 3D printing has become an essential tool in aerospace and an important technology to scale production, develop fully functional parts, and lower part costs. This is especially critical for the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which is under constant pressure to accelerate aircraft repairs, reduce costs, and get aircraft back in the air quickly. Plus, for many aging aircraft, replacement parts are scarce, and it can be difficult to find manufacturers willing to resume production for parts that may not be reordered for many years.
To address these challenges, the USAF has begun a multi-year collaborative contract with Texas-based Essentium to drive development and deployment of advanced additive manufacturing (AM) solutions for applications in tooling; ground support; maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO); and flight-certified parts for military aircraft and ground vehicles through the Air Force and the National Guard Bureau (NGB). Their big push is for sustainment and lifecycle management of aging aircraft.
The Essentium-USAF project team will test and develop new materials and processes using the company’s high speed extrusion (HSE™) 3D printing platform, which prints parts 5x to 15x faster than competing systems.
“Essentium demonstrated it has the expertise and capabilities to create parts with consistent replication using the Essentium HSE 3D printing platform,” says Elisa Teipel, Ph.D., chief development officer and co-founder of Essentium. “We’ll work together to drive additive manufacturing technology forward and for faster aircraft repairs that massively reduce time to deliver parts to keep our war fighters ready.”
The platform allows for rapid part production at the point of use and decreases new material certification times. It has the size, speed, and capacity to operate at scale.
Additionally, a machine on the ground, at a base, or at a location that can print provides supply chain efficiencies for on-demand and expeditionary parts.
The HSE 3D printer’s open platform enables a larger variety of materials and there’s more room for development. It can make molds to create tools or quantities of end-use parts. Something new can be created each day, without the need for retooling.
A key component is the HSE Hozzle, a nozzle with an integrated heating and temperature sensing unit that can heat to 550°C in three seconds. It has a sapphire tip, allowing users to extrude high-performance materials. Leveraging these capabilities, the Essentium-USAF team is also focusing on two types of materials important for the industry – high-temperature and ground support materials. Materials must resist high temperatures and chemicals due to the different lubricants and additives used. Additionally, it’s imperative to have materials that are also anti-corrosive to avoid harm by the rigorous additives, fuels, and liquids used in production, Teipel explains.
For the Air Force, which is no longer relying solely on traditional supply chains, the HSE 3D printers also allow them to execute their forward way of thinking.
“That’s another key breakthrough,” Teipel adds. “It used to be that you could design things as an engineer, but you couldn’t manufacture. With additive, you can design things that you can print that you could have never made before.”
The platform also addresses the challenge of developing replacement parts.
According to Teipel, the USAF estimates nearly 10,000 replacement part requests are delayed each year. In some cases, they’re not able to get the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to make the part, or it’s no longer available. There are some critical pieces that cause aircraft to be grounded, therefore, airworthy parts, as well as those on the ground including jigs and fixtures, need to be tailored specifically. Additive is a transformative approach for these industry requirements, delivering improved performance for replacement parts and advancing ground tooling and technology.
With AM technology, Essentium is focused on equipping the Air Force with tools for training so they can maximize use and deploy it to become a key component for their already well-established ecosystem. Accelerating the industrial scale of 3D printing will allow it to play a role in the supply chains and keep factory floors and USAF depots moving. Therefore, if a crisis occurs, or if there’s some type of supply shortage, having the machine in place will provide the necessary flexibility to meet demand.
“It’s really about getting this technology in the hands of men and women and making sure that they’re able to use it and design what they need for their world, what they need to keep us all safe, and design what they need to for everyday use,” Teipel says.
Teipel goes on to explain how additive is already being used in the Air Force, but the difference is that this is industrial additive. It’s additive at scale, not a trinket, prototyping, or one-off part; it’s actually a way to build up inventory.
“We’re a materials-first company, so we’re poised to continue to lead in that area and help understand all the different things you can do with this tool, depending on materials and the application,” Teipel says. “So, we’re really doing a deep dive into the applications and providing materials that can be used across the Air Force and the U.S Department of Defense.”
The project is also demonstrating how additive is transforming the Department of Defense, as well as the commercial side of aerospace. Teipel predicts that more industries, both public and private, will continue to partner to bring more AM into their ecosystem and advance production in newer ways.