Aug 12, 2016 | By Alec

Thanks to numerous fantastic test results, you could start think that metal 3D printing has become the most normal thing in the world. Just earlier this month, NavAir successfully tested a MV-22B Osprey fitted with a partially 3D printed engine nacelle, and plenty of similar stories are appearing regularly. You might even be wondering why it took so long. After a decade of innovation, surely we should have progressed passed single 3D printed components? In reality, however, aerospace metal 3D printing has been stuck in a kind of limbo– as nothing more than an interesting new technology that needs more study.

This is perfectly illustrated by the pioneering efforts of Honeywell Aerospace, a global provider of integrated avionics, engines, systems and service solutions for various partners from the aerospace, aviation and defense industries. They were one of the first to begin experimenting with metal 3D printing way back in 2010, but they haven’t gotten much further than a few practical test parts yet. But it seems as though the technology is reaching a turning point, as it is receiving FAA approval and has also become cheaper and faster than competing technologies. As a result, Honeywell has now begun taking the 3D printing technology out of the laboratories, and into the engine development realm. Metal 3D printing is finally ready for lift-off.

This is a huge moment, as Honeywell first introduced metal 3D printing to the aerospace industry way back in 2010 – when it 3D printed a 718 nickel-based superalloy part with a tangential injection nozzle (TOBI) and installed it on an active test plane. This was followed by numerous other 3D printing tests, including generator parts in 2012. In January 2015, Honeywell even became the first company to use electron beam melting (EBM) to produce an aerospace component with that same 718 superalloy. The component in question was a HTF7000 engine tube that featured an experimental design. While previously consisting of eight different part numbers, this was just a single part number that was designed in a matter of weeks – rather than months.

Honeywell further showed its dedication to 3D printing by opening several 3D printing labs in China, India, Europe, Mexico and the U.S. “We also patented a novel approach to chemically machine the internal passages of complex, cooled components that were machined using 3D technology,” says Honeywell engineer Donald Godfrey.

What’s more, the company is fully aware of what 3D printing can do for them – especially as a time saving tool that can build more efficient geometries and cut down on inventory. Whereas traditional airplane parts can take months to make, 3D printing cuts down that time significantly. A turbine blade could take up to three years to develop – but 3D printing cuts that down to just nine weeks. “Suppliers are now able to upload that same CAD file directly to a machine and have the parts printed out in a matter of hours or days. It’s a more efficient and cost-effective process,” the company recently argued.

So why has it been taking so long? As Donald Godfrey explained, Honeywell has been consistently held back by the lack of a metal 3D printing supply chain. Establishing powder production and storage facilities, as well as melting testing and post-treatment processes simply takes a long time. Fixing those schedules has been one of the major challenges, and which cannot be done without approval from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), clients and Honeywell’s own engineering and marketing departments. “We have to select a powder vendor, and then audit that vendor to Honeywell quality standards,” Godfrey explains. “Then we must document how the powder is to be received, stored, loaded into the printer and reused after a build. All of that information must be submitted to the FAA.”

What’s more, Godfrey believes that many 3D printing technologies are simply not suitable for anything other than laboratory applications right now. For as it stands, metal 3D printing does not yet bring the necessary cost-saving advantages with it. While saving a lot of time, the associated costs make the technology unappealing on a large scale. This is further hampered by the fact that aircraft assembly processes are so complex that traditional production processes cannot be completely phased out. 3D printing can only affect so many parts. “Right now, the economic advantages of metal 3D printing do not match up with those of simple casting solutions,” he says.

Honeywell’s solution? Shifting to Electron Beam Melting 3D printing technology from Arcam. Not only does it significantly reduce production times, but it is also open to any type of metal material and can support an unparalleled variety of complex geometries and flexible designs. “Honeywell is developing this technology to reduce capital-tooling budgets and marching it into production to reduce component costs and to improve quality,” he says. “Tools that might take six or seven weeks to manufacture can be printed in a day or two. If we can get the right tools to the test rigs two or three months ahead of the original plan, we can save tens of thousands of dollars in schedule and program costs.”

Though this is not without its own challenges either, in part thanks to the heat the electron beam 3D printer generates. “The electron-beam machine never gets below 1900 F. You have to let it cool down for about 8 hrs. before you can take a part out of the machine—and that has to be calculated into your overall production time,” Godfrey says. While laser 3D printed parts also get very hot, they can be handled far quicker.

Honeywell is nonetheless moving forward with the technology, and is ready to leave the exploratory phase behind them. They are currently testing and developing new powders in a lab in Bangalore, India – which requires 3D printing more than 1,000 test bars that need to be extensively tested. What’s more, Honeywell is looking to break out of existing material limitations. “Right now everybody in the industry is printing powders that have been around for 20 years, because it’s a new technology. When you change to a new powder you’re adding another unknown,” says Godfrey. Honeywell has its eyes on some 40 new types of metal powders.

But they have particularly set their sights on expanding nickel and aluminum 3D printing capabilities, and will be 3D printing up to seven parts for their TPE331 engine. “We also have been incorporating 3D printing of tooling for low-volume, high value castings. Some of these castings are produced with printed sand and others are produced using printed patterns. The technology has helped us shave months from our procurement schedules. Some castings were produced in less than a day, while most were cast in less than a week,” Godfrey revealed.

While progress has thus been slow from an external point of view, metal 3D printing is finally ready for its next phase at Honeywell and is moving towards actual use. According to one report, up to 40 percent of Honeywell members could be equipped with EBM 3D printing technology for production purposes – especially for small volume production. Metal 3D printing is finally going places.

 

 

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Sathish wrote at 5/8/2017 8:34:28 AM:

Dear Sir, I am a research scholar doing my research in the field of electron beam melting of material. In this regard i request your support to process the material in EBM and I assure that i will abide the terms and conditions. Thank you, (sadish.kss@gmail.com)

Sathish wrote at 5/8/2017 8:32:39 AM:

Dear Sir, I am a research scholar doing my research in the field of electron beam melting of material. In this regard i request your support to process the material EBM and I assure that i will abide the terms and conditions. Thank you

Tibor van Melsem - Founder Dimanex wrote at 8/12/2016 9:02:25 PM:

Supply Chain Disruption: - Better service to your customers - Better financial performance - Reduction of the environmental footprint



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