Dec 14, 2014 | By Simon

Having sold more than 35,000 helicopters since 1941, Bell Helicopter knows a thing or two about manufacturing techniques and best practices for helicopter materials and design.

For years the company has been relying on 3D printing to test and prototype components before putting them into production as final helicopter parts, which, being for a flying aircraft, requires incredible precision and final execution.
In partnership with Harvest, a rapid prototyping company, Bell has taken the rapid prototyping step of their design process to the next level and have developed a method of using 3D printing as a form of final manufacturing for some of their helicopter parts using Harvest's high-quality EOS laser-sintering (SLS) machines.

Among other factors that Bell had to look at when considering 3D printed parts for their helicopter design were heat distribution, powder degradation, dimensional accuracy, repeatability, component quality and performance, and the economics of manufacture, among others...all of which the EOS machines were capable of satisfying.

While 3D printing a pair of headphones on a MakerBot is one thing, 3D printing parts for a helicopter understandably requires much more thorough research, testing and demands from a 3D printer.

With aerospace design and part manufacturing being amongst the most advanced type of engineering and design in existence, it's encouraging to know that additive manufacturing as a form of final manufacturing has proven to be effective in the industry.

"We characterised the mechanical properties of each additively manufactured build so that we could confirm that the EOS system met our specification requirements and produced the same quality product each time," said Elliott Schulte, a Senior Engineer at Bell Helicopter.

"The systematic testing was done with a number of different materials and across a series of individual builds to establish that EOS technology was robust and highly repeatable."

The biggest asset for Bell in working with additive manufacturing, like other product development companies have found, has been the freedom of design and ability to iterate quickly through different ideas and concepts.

Christopher Gravelle, head of Bell Helicopter's rapid prototyping lab added, "Material characterisation is a critical consideration for us during design. For instance, if we are creating bosses for attachment points in additively manufactured nylon rather than metal, it is a new material and process and you cannot just use the same configuration."

When looking at some of EOS' other customer case studies, it's clear that their platforms are among the best when it comes to creating final parts. Among other products that have been created on EOS machines are cranial implants... another 3D printing application that requires utmost precision and execution in the design.

"The EOS technology produces a robust and highly repeatable process that complies with our specification," said Caleb Farrell, quality manager at Harvest. "We have done a number of conversions of aircraft parts from previous processes to AM. With the EOSINT P 730, we often discover that the production cost per piece is substantially reduced compared to conventional manufacturing methods."

The large build platform of the EOSINT P 730 has enabled Bell to leverage the quality of the prints that come from EOS 3D printers into larger parts.

"Because of the large build platform in the EOSINT P 730, we can print bigger components in one piece rather than in sections, eliminating assembly costs," Farrell added.

Additionally, the EOS system incorporates a software fix that provides high resolution prints with minimal need to clean or finish the final surfaces. While SLS 3D printing already delivers among the highest in 3D print quality, the added fix ensures that all pieces coming off of the machine are ready to go straight into the helicopter with minimal prep time.

Next up, Harvest is working with Bell Helicopter to use their newly-acquired EOSINT P 730 and an EOSINT P 760 3D printers to create spares and developing strategies for batch part production.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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