Apr 1, 2016 | By Alec

Metal 3D printing is quickly becoming an indispensable innovation tool for both aerospace and defense industries, with everyone from the US navy to NASA and SpaceX using high end machinery to 3D print crucial engine and rocket parts. It almost seems like 3D printing is ushering in the next generation of top level engineering solutions. Now even the Massachusetts-based defense contractor Raytheon is adopting 3D printing, with the company’s head of advanced missile systems Tom Bussing revealing that the company is adopting the technology to scale up their weapon systems and give a boost to their development of hypersonic missiles.

Raytheon, of course, can be found at the forefront of defense technology development, and provide state-of-the-art electronics, mission systems integration, mission support services and more to the US government. They also provide a wide range of missile systems, including the Excalibur precision-guided artillery shell – which the US army has already used in operations in Afghanistan. As they revealed to defense journalists from Breaking Defense, the company is now investing in a 3D printer that can build what they call “big structures”.

According to Breaking Defense’s expert Sydney Freedberg, this investment follows something of a trend in the defense industry – where 3D printing has become an enabler of development for its ability to produce large structures made from unconventional materials. This is especially useful for hypersonic weapons – the highly coveted next-gen missiles that can hit a target at more than five times the speed of sound. These missiles require what Freedberg calls ‘exotic materials’ that can withstand those circumstances, as well as lots of unconventionally shaped components. Exactly what 3D printing can provide.

That, in a nutshell, seems to be what Raytheon is working on with the help of 3D printing. “There have been some fundamental gamechangers in that world [of hypersonics], so not only can you build them, but you can build them affordably,” Tom Bussing told reporters. “[With 3D printing], you can build things you couldn’t otherwise build. In the high-speed weapon area, [3D printing] becomes a fundamental enabler because that’s the only way you can make large structures out of exotic materials.”

The Excalibur shell, made with 3D printing and used in Afghanistan.

Here again, 3D printing offers valuable shaping methods that traditional casting process can’t achieve. Next-gen engines and missiles rely on very complex and efficient networks of cooling channels. Moving at five times the speed of sound creates a lot of heating friction, after all. This requires efficient vents that don’t structurally weaken the rocket – which is difficult to achieve with casting, drilling and cutting. With a 3D printer, vents of all shapes and sizes (such as helixes) are no problem at all. “If it’s more efficient, it means you can make it smaller, [with] less cooling,” said Bussing. “[the missile] lasts longer, flies farther.”

To realize this and an overall upscaling of their weapon manufacturing capacity, Raytheon is also learning from their experience with the 3D printed Excalibur shells. “[Now] we’re actually looking at using additive manufacturing to grow entire weapons,” said Bussing. “We just made a big investment on a unique machine to do some very, very big structures.”

But the development of  hypersonic vehicles (missiles) seems to be very high up on their agenda, for which Raytheon has already set up two proposals for DARPA funding: Tactical Boost-Glide (TBG) and the Hypersonic Air-Breathing Weapon Concept (HAWC). The First is a missile with a rocket motor that ‘skips’ off the atmosphere, much like a stone on the water. Both Russia and China have already been looking into those kinds of rockets, which can theoretically cover huge distances at extreme speeds. The HAWC, meanwhile, is a type of flying missile that shoots itself forward by sucking in huge amounts of oxygen at a speed of higher than Mach 5. This system will have a lower range, but is much more agile and precise, its developers believe. 3D printing, Bussing said, can obviously help to realize both projects.

Raytheon is thus, essentially, working on 3D printed missile systems that can hit enemies long before they’ve had a chance to react. They could hit a North Korean nuclear missile ready for launch before it lifts off, for example. Even complex anti-missile batteries wouldn’t be able to lock onto a missile travelling at such speeds. Could 3D printing change warfare as we know it?



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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