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Additive manufacturing in aerospace: how far have we come?

Dr Ross Trepleton looks back at the DRAMA programme in part I of a guest blog from the National Centre for Additive Manufacturing.

By ATI Comms

06 April 2021 04:00:PM
Read time: 4 mins

At the UK’s National Centre for Additive Manufacturing, based at the MTC, we have been supporting sectors including aerospace, defence, Formula 1 racing, automotive, medical, power generation, and space in their adoption of additive manufacturing (AM) for nearly ten years now. We have also just come to the end of a major UK programme for aerospace called DRAMA (Digital Reconfigurable Additive Manufacturing facilities for Aerospace), so we thought it’s a good time to do some reflection, and think about the future direction of AM in aerospace.

The National Centre for Additive Manufacturing

 

In 2011, the newly opened MTC purchased its first additive manufacturing (AM) machine – an Arcam (now GE Additive) A2WT and we embarked upon a major project with Rolls-Royce Civil Aerospace. The project was to build the largest metal 3D printed component that had flown at that time - a Trent XWB front bearing housing structure. In parallel, we started working on benchmarking AM activities with a number of global aerospace enterprises. Only a few years on, in 2014 and with support from UK government, we opened the National Centre at the MTC. The additional funding we received allowed us to expand our capabilities into other AM technologies. Just as importantly, we also invested in equipment across the AM process chain, from powder characterisation, through post processing and inspection. Our view was (and still is) that mastering these up and down stream processes is critical to effectively implement AM in industry.

Through these early collaborations, the potential of additive manufacturing to disrupt the aerospace supply chain became very clear to us. With 3D printing, the design organisation could have ever more control over the process – moving from ‘make-to-print’ (manufacturing to a printed technical drawing) to ‘make-to-file’ (pressing ‘go’ against a pre-written build plan). This had the potential to reduce the value that supply chain companies could add through their own innovation. It could also have implications for the make-buy decisions of the design organisations. In addition, 3D printing gives the opportunity to consolidate components. Fewer components means fewer suppliers, potentially driving consolidation of the supply chain. Finally, with 3D printing the ‘intelligence’ around defining the product and process moves ever further into software, so who owns the design rights becomes blurry and this, in turn, unlocks new business models. Are the rights now owned by the company carrying out the design, the company executing the process or the company who develops the software?

With disruption imminent, we decided a concerted effort was needed to ensure the UK’s aerospace supply chain adopts AM successfully and remains competitive on an increasingly global stage. Through discussions with the ATI and aerospace primes it became clear that a collaborative effort could really move the dial for aerospace AM in the UK, and thus the DRAMA project was conceived.

DRAMA has built a series of national assets that can be used by the aerospace primes and supply chain companies to accelerate their learning and ultimately accelerate adoption of AM.  The project has been a bigger success than we ever imagined - thanks to amazing collaboration of technology providers, research organisations and sector cluster bodies supported by leading aerospace companies through a dedicated steering group.

As part of the project we have built a state of the art AM facility, and a digital toolkit to optimise part design and AM operations. Working alongside the Midlands Aerospace Alliance and Renishaw, over 20 supply chain companies have used the assets to advance their adoption of additive manufacturing. We have worked with these companies to develop their AM strategy, accelerate their AM product development and support their production implementation. Companies supported have ranged from existing aerospace machining companies, to high performance AM bicycle manufacturers looking to move into aerospace- each finding their own unique way to take advantage of the opportunities that AM brings.

 

With thanks to Dr Ross Trepleton and the team from NCAM. Part II will focus on the opportunities that AM presents.