I-90 Conference: Additive manufacturing is about to change everything

By Bryan Corliss

June 5, 2019, © Leeham News, Coeur d’Alene (ID) — Within a decade, 3-D printing will begin to revolutionize the way companies fabricate and assemble aircraft–and just about everything else humans manufacture.

That was the message delivered by panelists at the I-90 Aerospace Corridor Conference & Expo.

The conference, for aerospace companies in eastern Oregon and Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana, was held May 27-28 in Coeur d’Alene (ID).

Companies are experimenting with the current generation of the technology now, said David Minerath, the president of Quest Integration, based in Post Falls (ID), whose company sells 3-D modeling and printing technology to manufacturers.

“We do have a lot of printers at aerospace companies, but they’re very sensitive about where these parts are going,” Minerath said.

Costs are coming down, he said. With units costing as little as $2,000 apiece, it’s possible for companies to stack five together in a room running parts.

“You’re getting close to low-rate production,” Minerath said.

And it’s easy, he said. “It’s like you’re doing ‘file, print’ to your laser printer.”

  • “Additive” technology literally the opposite of current process
  • Idaho company has patents on fast-curing process
  • Will allow changes in how parts are produced and assembled

It all adds up

Additive manufacturing is the current industry buzzword for the process that’s long been referred to as 3-D printing. Insiders say it’s a more-precise description of the process, and one that emphasizes the difference with the way parts traditionally have been fabricated with machine tools.

With additive manufacturing, machines (or sometimes humans) build up layers of composite materials to create a part. In contrast, traditional “subtractive” parts fabrication involves taking a blank piece of metal and cutting away the unneeded pieces until only the part itself is left.

Which is better? Both have drawbacks, and for the past few decades, designers of aircraft and other devices have balanced trade-offs when deciding which to use.

Traditional subtractive metal-grinding wastes a lot of material, but it results in sturdier (yet heavier) metal parts. It’s also a straight-forward production process: one highly skilled machine operator can take an engineer’s drawing, program the machining tool and monitor its progress to ensure it spits out a part that meets the aerospace industry’s exacting specifications.

Additive manufacturing, to date, has been far more labor-intensive, explained Tyler Alvarado, the chief executive of Continuous Composites in Coeur d’Alene.

Lighter material

The advantage to composites is that they’re lighter than steel or aluminum. However, to build a piece from composites means buying sheets of a carbon-fiber material that have been pre-impregnated with a sophisticated resin and storing them in a giant freezer until they’re ready to be thawed and used.

Then either a machine – or a team of humans – will cut the pre-preg fiber into pieces that are laid on a mandrel, or mold. Once this process is done, the whole thing goes into an autoclave. (Alvarado, who gave a presentation on additive manufacturing to local high school students at the conference, described the autoclaves as large pressure cookers.) There it gets baked and pressed into a solid.

Boeing made a giant leap toward additive manufacturing with the 787 program, which famously uses more carbon fiber than any commercial aircraft before it.

But the high cost of the labor-intensive handling is keeping more manufacturers from using the best carbon-fiber composites more widely, Alvarado said. Right now, it’s a material reserved for high-end recreational gear (think top-of-the-line racing bicycles), luxury cars–and the aerospace industry.

That could be about to change.

Breaking the mold

Alvarado told those attending the I-90 conference that some of the most-important employees at Continuous Composites these days are their patent attorneys. The company holds U.S. and foreign patents on a combination of hardware and software that allows its machines to laid down layers of carbon fiber impregnated with fast-drying resins into any 3-D shape that a customer could desire.

The resin dries fast enough to eliminate the need for an autoclave, and the head of the machine is laying down in the current shape, which eliminates the need for a mandrel.

The combination cuts down the number of steps involved to get from design to product, and it eliminates a lot of the materials handling involved, Alvarado said.

Alvarado said his company is in talks with Fortune 100 companies and aerospace and defense manufacturers (he didn’t specify which ones) who want to license it for their factories.

Given the rigorous certification standards in commercial aerospace, Alvarado said he expects the first users will be manufacturers of missiles and drones, which aren’t carrying people into the air.

Continuous Composites isn’t the only company making dramatic advances in additive manufacturing, Minerath said.

Dave Fields, an associate dean of engineering at Washington State University, said researchers at his school are studying how to use metal fibers in a process that would similar to what Alvarado’s company is doing with carbon fibers and resin.

But one thing that’s holding the industry back is a lack of agreement on standards.

As it stands now, different machines can use the same carbon fiber materials but give different results. The same machine can produce parts with very different properties, depending on how the fibers are oriented, he said.

But once the industry does come together on standards, it will bring fundamental changes to how aircraft are designed and built, the panelists said.

Revolutionize parts design, production

Right now, designing an aircraft parts requires engineers to make trade-offs between what the ideal part would look like in theory – and what the technology will allow them to create in the real world.

Take, for example, a hollow part. Machine tools can’t feasibly grind one, so today’s metal parts that need to be hollow are designed in curved pieces that then are bolted together.

But with the latest 3-D printing tools, you can produce a hollow part, said Scott Atkins, the research and development manager at WMD Tech in Boise.

His company is spending a good amount of time with designers teaching them how to take advantage of the new additive manufacturing tools, he said. “You’re almost re-learning how to design at that point.”

There’s a big plus when aerospace parts can be built this way, Alvarado noted: The process does away with unneeded fasteners. Thirty percent of an airplane’s weight is simply the nuts and bolts that hold it together, he said.

“As manufacturers, we went to make things smarter, lighter, faster,” Minerath said. The new additive manufacturing tools do that, he proclaimed.

The future is (almost) now

Atkins said he believe that the next generation of 3-D printers will be the ones that take additive manufacturing from handy tools for working out prototypes to full-fledged production machines.

The other panelists agreed.

“We’re past the point of no return,” Alvarado said. “The world is recognizing the value of these processes.”

“It’s mind-boggling,” added Minerath. “We have technology that is staggering in what it’s capable of doing.”

17 Comments on “I-90 Conference: Additive manufacturing is about to change everything

  1. I know some disagree, but I think the pace is quickening.

    Mass production of carbon composites is on the way. They will be lighter and stronger.

    But then we come to metal composites. By this I mean a composite at the molecular level not composite strips of material. Aluminium, titanium, and steel based composites that are 30% to 40% lighter but stronger.

    Great article.

    • I do agree.

      I don’t know why they need standards as their should be or is a test to confirm it meets the requirements. Maybe it would allow one test series and then use those known properties but I would think that also means no innovation and the flexibly to orient and change and make it better, lower cost etc would far supersede that.

      Its a reason (not the same) that its impossible to comment on the NMA. We can only comment on what we know, what Boeing has experimented with and bring to production is unknown.

      It may work or may not but until we see what approach they are taking we don’t know (guesses are not knowing) what they have up their sleeve that they think will work.

  2. the game is really going to change when they can start printing structural parts.

    automated tape placement as Boeing does with the 787 isn’t really in the same class as what most people think of as additive manufacturing.

    for one is it basically a 2D technology wrapping tape around a tube to produce a thin skin, which you then cut holes in for the doors and windows and glue in stringers.

    additive manufacturing would print near net shape the whole damn thing with all the stringers and holes and all that would need to be done when it came out of the printer is some trim some flange and remove any temporary structures that are printed to help stabilize the part while it is curing.

    • I’m not sure either that the 787 is a good example of a lightweight result achieved using lightweight components…

      The thing that exercises me about additive manufacturing is that there is definitely a feeling that it should be used “because it’s cool”, and not because the end result is actually better. Sometimes it is better, other times it’s really not.

      And whilst it might bring component build time reductions for complex pieces, that’s not the same as faster manufacturing. With additive processes one needs to be very vigilant on quality control, and that takes time.

      With traditional manufacturing, one is often starting off with a piece of approved material, and if properly handled during the manufacturing process it will still be an approved piece of material afterwards.

    • Bilbo: While I agree its actually 3 D as it does have depth even in a single layer and the layers combined have more depth.

      Crude version maybe would be a better term but not truly printed at all or addition in the sense its being used.

  3. Additive vs “Subtractive” is a bit simplistic as a taxonomy. What about forging, casting, blow-molding and I’m sure others that don’t fit that classification.

    In fact many current 3-D Printers are can be seen as “incremental” casting machines.

    • I don’t think we have to get it down to the nid noid

      Casting is part of subtraction, not a lot of stuff if any can be case to a final form. Its still machined down (maybe manholes wold be an exception?)

      Forging generally if not always winds up with subtraction as well.

      Printing or additive is a new area and an amazing one.

      • Cast camshafts were a major step over forged ones.
        Cast in “Feinguß” the loaded surfaces are “TIG”ed up into a Ledeburite structure. One final grinding run produces a perfect camshaft. No more “subtraction” than most CFRP or laser sinter additive metal parts.

  4. Bryan, what is your take on the health and recycling aspects?

    With the buzz over many years now for CFRP in aviation and other fields I only very rarely see any discussion of the health concerns over CFRP dust, such as could be encountered especially outside a controlled environment (eg in a crash).

    Similarly I only rarely see any discussion on the recycling of CFRP. I’m aware of the ability to recycle CFRP epoxy and the use of rCF in place of vCF in certain applications but would be interesting to hear what those at the forefront of aero CFRP think will play out, given the loud ‘plastic is bad’ noises today.

    Finally for innovative metal alloys, 3D hybrid structures and so on, can these reliably be made conformant with increasing demands for manufactured items to be fully recyclable?

  5. A.net member “Lightsaber” has a lot of insight on this – he’s discussed this topic quite a bit. It definitely seems laser/3-D printing is (finally) starting to make its mark in the aerospace industry – especially with costs going down and manufacturing techniques improving.

  6. Re-bar usually runs in two directions for tensile strength in both directions. I’d be curious how they solved this problem with additive manufacturing to lay down carbon fibers in two directions.
    I have no idea how real this is. To a layperson, it reads just like electric aircraft or self driving cars. Best thing since sliced bread and it will be the only game in town in five years? In 2005 nobody was predicting that Boeing’s next widebody would be a giant aluminum tube, the 777x.

    • No its real. Its not going form 0 to 10000 mph overnight but it truly is real.

      In some cases in my area, they are making low level parts for older equipment that wold cost a ton to try to go back (silly stuff like oil caps)

      As all of it does it started out as huge cost, the more you do the more the costs come down.

      Rebar is cross run in two levels, that may work in some cases. Or you could do a two head system that lays it down one way and the one behind the other before it cures the first.

      Shoot they are low cost enough to play with at home now.

      The cycle I am buying has used it to print trail parts. They are not production or production stench but they eliminate all the trail and error for fit and then they move the final build to a casting or machined part with the specifications.

      Ural (side car) is a low volume machine that needed a serious update to stay alive but need to maintain what they have or no base for the improvements.

      They say they have cut developed costs for that by 80%. They now have the machine up to at least 80s level reliability and tech (and some like the fuel injection system is 2019 state of the art)

      At some point they will be able to print the low run parts for the older models and maintain the support for them.

      The possibles are stunning and its going to be the Computer curve of the 80s, my first lug-able (Kaypro) was primitive but in 10 years they had made that look like a Model T (and mine stood me in good service as a word processor for 20)

      Even outdated machines would still be usable for trail work.

      I don’t go overboard on this stuff but its truly a stunning change that in the long run will disrupt the old manufacturing industries in a huge way.

      It will be interesting to see what is Environmental footprint is as well. You can see cutting a lot of the process costs out of the equation.

  7. The standards issues are being attacked from both ends. The materials are being standardized, much to the chagrin of the chemical companies. The next step is for the machine builders/programmers to figure out how to control the properties. They need to move from ‘how fast’ to ‘how controlled’.
    Until they can tell you what the properties will be before they build and test a part additive of any form will see limited service.
    Today it is widely being used to make parts that either see virtually no load, or parts that were originally 10x over built and now they are making new lighter versions tat are only 5x overbuilt. That is progress but far from the promise.

    • exactly my point above…

      when they can print a flight certifiable landing gear bogey or a turbine blade then the technology will explode.

      currently they are being used for things like fuel injector bodies that take no structural and low thermal loads and otherwise are mainly used for “first article test fit” applications to make sure the CAD is right before sending it off to the subcontractor who will machine the production part from a block of 6061….

  8. The issues with 3D printing are finishing quality wish is very expensive. Of course if the piece is not need to look nice the problem goes away.

    Control quality is another, albeit only knowing the typical 3D printing there can be many variations in quality just if the printing table is changed less than a 0.05mm…

  9. The notion of an airplane that you would put your family on that was 3D printed – designed and built from a duopoly in a capacity constrained market is laughable .. this is why we are still building 50 year old airplanes in accord with the changed product rule – because they can ..

    3d is great stuff – but there are not design allowables and the duopoly isnt going to spend their money to create them .. the FAA is so baked they dont even know what an airplane is or how to regulate it anymore – 10X more acid stripped of talent than the duopoly so they are of no use to create them and NASA is really a covert black hole for “missing money” and more interested in space and black projects .. save the 3d for something you can afford to have blow up on your countertop ..

    • Hmm, times are a changing no matter how dark the view

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