In the space and missile world, there has never been greater competition and opportunity for innovation across commercial, civil, and military sectors. Additive manufacturing (AM) has emerged as a critical enabling technology for reducing weight through structural optimization, improving performance through multifunctional design, increasing reliability through reduced parts count, and reducing timelines by accelerating design-build-test cycles. It will continue to grow in importance as the exploitation of space and hypersonic domains intensifies.
No longer is additive manufacturing viewed as a technology of the future, but it has been widely embraced to create a military or market advantage in the present.
While there have been tremendous leaps in metal AM technologies, there are yet hurdles which hold back the proliferation of these technologies to meet the growing demand for innovation in space and missile systems. One hurdle is cost. For the major players in the industry, the cost of metal AM equipment may not be a substantial roadblock given the potential return on investment in space/missile R&D and resulting products. However, cost does create a barrier to entry for many, particularly lower tier suppliers, small business innovation firms, and the training and education sector which feeds the industry its engineers and technicians. Thus, equipment with lower acquisition and operating costs will be in increasing demand.
A second and more pervasive hurdle concerns process stability. Like all manufacturing processes, laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) and other metal AM technologies are prone to process-induced defects, which can be quite insidious and result in variability in performance. Such latent defects must be understood and accounted for in certifying aerospace parts. Process stability can be improved through use of qualified feedstock, established parameters, QA protocols, and post-build inspections. Looking ahead, in situ process monitoring will become an increasingly critical element of part certification to avoid critical defects in service. Process monitoring also paves the way for real-time control of process parameters or build stoppage, resulting in production cost and schedule savings.
The last hurdle to be addressed concerns customization. The adoption of AM across space and missile applications, from compact multifunctional small satellites to intricate hypersonic leading edge designs to complete 3D printed engines, creates a growing appetite for “right-sized” solutions to create a discriminating advantage. This has already resulted in more players filling more niches to provide specialized AM capabilities. Going forward, there will be growing interest in affordable systems sized and outfitted for specific production runs, in which the cost savings and performance gains more than offset any added development or qualification activity. These built-to-order systems will provide faster transition of technologies from R&D lab to production floor, compared to today’s AM industry.
HOW CAN WE HELP?
In consideration of these hurdles, open-architecture approaches will increasingly be of interest for space and missile applications. At Open Additive, our PANDA™ Metal 3D Printing System provides a modular platform with substantial versatility. We are also working on larger system designs and advanced processing features, in collaboration with aerospace customers and partners. Our AMSENSE® integrated sensing/analytics suite provides a robust starting point for collecting and analyzing data from LPBF builds, and has been used on in-house R&D and industrial systems. Our applications team includes personnel with direct experience designing, building, and testing parts for aerospace and defense applications, with requisite security clearances. We also have local industry partners with key experience and capabilities in the aerospace and defense sector, with customers spanning Air Force, Army, Navy, Missile Defense Agency, Defense Logistics Agency, and NASA.
We’re ready and able to work with forward-leaning partners to demonstrate these capabilities on real-world space/missile challenges. Please let us know how we can help accelerate your efforts to fly higher, faster, safer, and cheaper!
Picture: Rocket engine model (4″/100-mm diameter) printed on Open Additive PANDA™ platform.
Dr. Ty Pollak is President, Open Additive, LLC. Prior to serving in industry, Ty served over 20 years as U.S. Air Force Officer, specializing in science & technology, systems engineering, and operational testing. From 2007-2010, he served as Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Space Systems Academic Group. There he taught courses in spacecraft structures, space systems and applications, and materials/mechanics. Missile-related duties included operational flight testing of the Advanced Cruise Missile, Air-Launched Cruise Missile, and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. He has also served in various leadership roles at the Air Force Research Laboratory, with portfolio emphasis on both structural and functional materials.