Aug 1, 2016 | By Alec

While 3D printing is becoming increasingly normal within the entire American defense industry, the US Navy is perhaps the technology’s most enthusiastic supporter. In fact, they have already tested numerous 3D printed parts in the field. Just a few months ago, they even launched a Trident II D5 Ballistic Missile with a 3D printed component. NavAir, the Naval Air Systems Command, has now  gone even further and just completed its first test flight featuring critical 3D printed components. The plane in question, an MV-22B Osprey fitted with a partially 3D printed engine nacelle, performed exactly as was expected.

It’s the first time a test flight featuring 3D printed critical components was completed, and the test itself even came as a surprise to NavAir. When the test was first announced back in May, they revealed that the 3D printed MV-22B Osprey parts were far ahead of schedule. According to Elizabeth McMichael, leader of the NavAir AM and Digital Thread Integrated Product Team (IPT), NavAir wanted to take a flight-critical 3D printed part into the air three years after development started. As she revealed, this 3D printed titanium part for the Boeing V-22 Osprey was completed in about half of that time.

Specifically, the NavAir’s 3D printing specialists developed a 3D printed link and fitting assembly for the engine nacelle – which secures a V-22’s engine to the primary wing structure. Four of these assemblies can be found on each Osprey, and they are obviously of critical importance for flight safety. But the 3D printed assembly performed admirably. “The flight went great. I never would have known that we had anything different onboard,” said MV-22 Project Officer Maj. Travis Stephenson, who also flew the plane during the test. The 3D printed assembly will now stay on the aircraft for further evaluation.

The parts themselves were 3D printed at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Lakehurst, New Jersey. They were built by Lakehurst and Penn State Applied Research Laboratory specialists, and extensively tested at the Patuxent River site before this test flight. The Navy has, of course, been 3D printing parts since the early 1990s – but mostly used the technology for non-flight parts and tools.

But as McMichael revealed, this successful test flight should usher in numerous new 3D printing applications. “The flight today is a great first step toward using AM wherever and whenever we need to. It willrevolutionize how we repair our aircraft and develop and field new capabilities – Additive Manufacturing is a game changer,” she said. “In the last 18 months, we've started to crack the code on using AM safely. We'll be working with V-22 to go from this first flight demonstration to a formal configuration change to use these parts on any V-22 aircraft.”

While the Navy obviously doesn’t want to share all their plans on the web, numerous navy officials have speculated about an on-demand system for fleet maintenance that relies on 3D printing. In such a system 3D printable data would be stocked rather than parts, with 3D printing taking place on a more localized scale.

But before such a system can be realized, McMichael and her team will first target six additional safety-critical parts for three U.S. Marine Corps rotorcraft platforms: the V-22, H-1 and CH-53K. Three of these parts will be 3D printed in titanium, while the remaining three will be made with stainless steel. Development and testing has been scheduled to take place over the next year.

However NavAir officials have emphasized that a lot more work is necessary before aircraft with 3D printed parts are actually deployed. “Although the flight today is a great step forward, we are not trying to 'lead' industry in our AM efforts, but it is absolutely critical that we understand what it takes to successfully manufacture and qualify AM parts for flight in naval aircraft, which we expect will largely be manufactured by our industry partners,” revealed NavAir commander Vice Adm. Paul A. Grosklags. “Where I believe we can 'lead' industry is in the development of the AM ‘digital thread,’ from initial design tools all the way to the flight line – securely maintained and managed through the life of an aircraft program.” But one thing is certain: more of the Navy’s 3D printing projects are on the horizon.

An MV-22B Osprey equipped with a 3D printed titanium link and fitting
inside an engine nacelle maintains a hover during a July 29 demonstration at
Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland. (U.S. Navy

3D printed titanium link and fitting are installed on an MV-22B Osprey
engine nacelle at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland.  (U.S. Navy



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