July 16, 2015 | By Simon

As the aerospace industry continues to explore applications for additive manufacturing ranging from components within airplane engines to even seat belt buckles, it’s not surprising that the developments have found their way into other types of products, too - such as missiles.  

Recently, researchers at Raytheon Missile Systems have stated that they have already created next-generation guided missiles that uses additive manufacturing to produce nearly every component within its assembly.  Among other parts, these include rocket engines, body fins, parts for the guidance and control systems, and more.   

The development of a fully 3D printed missile is part of a company-wide push to supplement or replace traditional manufacturing processes for their missile parts with additive manufacturing processes.  While it would make sense for the company to use processes such as direct metal laser sintering to produce a body shell, the engineers are also looking into more advanced use cases including the production of electrical circuits, housings for the company's revolutionary gallium nitride transmitters and custom fin designs for guided artillery shells.      

“You could potentially have these in the field,” said Raytheon engineer Jeremy Danforth, who is among those who have printed working rocket motors. “Machines making machines. The user could [print on demand]. That’s the vision.”

Among other factors, the lower costs of owning and maintaining high-end equipment and the ability to increasingly modify existing low-cost 3D printers were enough of a reason for the company’s researchers to look into the possibility of creating every component of a guided weapon using 3D printing including the circuitry.  In addition to reducing the costs associated with traditional manufacturing, it also allows for the designers and engineers to design quickly and iteratively with the ability to have their new part in hand within hours rather than weeks or even months.  

“3-D printing could someday streamline [all] manufacturing process,” explains Leah Hull, additive manufacturing manager for Raytheon.

“When we print something, we have fewer piece parts, so your supply chain becomes simpler.  Your development cycles are shorter; you’re getting parts much faster.”

Of course, using 3D printing also allows for designers and engineers to experiment with new structures that otherwise wouldn’t be possible to manufacture using traditional processes.    

“You can design internal features that might be impossible to machine,” said Raytheon engineer Travis Mayberry, who is researching future uses of additive manufacturing and 3-D printing. “We’re trying new designs for thermal improvements and lightweight structures, things we couldn’t achieve with any other manufacturing method.”

Unsurprisingly, one of the biggest challenges for the researchers has been in the development of creating printable complex electronic circuits and microwave components.  Currently, engineers at the Raytheon University of Massachusetts Lowell Research Institute are looking into new ways of producing the sophisticated radars and guidance systems used in the company’s air and missile defense systems.

While circuits can already be printed using an inkjet method, Raytheon is hoping that their research will enable their researchers to print more complicated circuit structures in three dimensions rather than the commonly-used flat silicon chip.  From here, they hope to be able to print the circuitry directly into the missiles themselves as a complete and integrated system.

Of course, while 3D printing a missile is one thing, being able to 3D print a missile while out in the field is an entirely different kind of challenge.   

“Before a warfighter can print a missile in the field,” says Raytheon University of Massachusetts Lowell Research Institute Director Chris McCarroll, “you need quality, controlled processes to fabricate all the component materials: the metallic strongbacks, and the plastic connectors, the semiconductors for processors, and the energetics and propulsion systems. The hard part is then making the connections between these components, as an example, the integrated control circuit that receives the command to light the fuse. At some relatively near-term point you may have to place chips down and interconnect them with printing. Or, in the future, maybe you’ll just print them.”



Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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Jeff wrote at 7/23/2015 6:06:45 PM:

Why is it that an article showcasing how a big industry, or the government, or the military under the government can 3D print weapons, including missiles, is all about praising the technology yet every article about an individual printing even a single shot pistol or rifle has to include had wringing about how "couldn't they use the talent to improve the world instead of printing weapons"? Are the writers that blind in their faith that government can do no wrong?

Terry wrote at 7/17/2015 2:06:58 AM:

Open Source?

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