Adept at adaptation

Burloak Technologies’ technical director, Keyvan Hosseinkhani and mechanical engineer, Patrick Hale look at the evolution of aerospace, and how additive manufacturing is helping to increase manufacturing agility.

As the speed of modern life accelerates, the aerospace sector is evolving apace. The continued adoption of digital technologies is creating new and exciting business opportunities for the space sector. Commercial aircraft manufacturers are experiencing a surge in demand following the pandemic. Similarly, defence contractors are looking to expand their capabilities to new areas, such as fighter aircraft, space resilience, shipbuilding, and cybersecurity.

Like all evolutions however, this industry shift comes with its share of challenges. Customer expectations are changing faster than ever. Competition in many sectors is intensifying. And virtually everyone is feeling pressure to enhance functional performance, reduce lead-times and uncover opportunities to lightweight, manage costs and address complexity and sustainment challenges.

This is the new normal. To thrive in it - and lay the groundwork for sustainable business performance into the future - aerospace companies must adjust their manufacturing practices accordingly.

One way to do this is by exploring opportunities to integrate additive manufacturing (AM) into their manufacturing frameworks. Because AM allows companies to print 3D parts layer-by-layer, it empowers manufacturers to produce stronger parts with fewer components. Its innovative use of materials, meanwhile, makes it possible to build components that can reliably withstand high pressure environments and extreme temperatures. Plus, it can do so in a fraction of the time (and with much less material waste) than traditional manufacturing methods.

Yet, to realise these benefits, it’s important to find a provider you can trust - one who can help you navigate this rapidly-evolving technology, maximise its benefits, and sustainably meet your unique business needs over the long haul. Here are a few ways to tell if a provider is up to the challenge.

More than a 3D printer

AM offers a host of benefits for aerospace manufacturers - from eliminating tooling restraints to reducing the number of components needed for complex parts, like rocket and jet engines. It can dramatically reduce part weights and simplify supply chains as well, allowing companies to save time and money while improving parts’ reliability. Additionally, because you’re working with CAD files, it can easily adapt in pace with your business so you can easily accommodate shifting customer demands.

That said, there are restrictions. For instance, while AM has advanced tremendously over the last 10 years, not every machine is well-suited to every application or part geometry. To be printed effectively, a part may need a different orientation, machine, bed size or material. In some cases, it may make more sense to Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) and create a completely new part in a more organic shape. In certain circumstances, rather than scrapping a large, outdated component, you may even be able to fix its geometry, print a small part and leverage AM to bring it back to life.

The truth is, only an experienced AM provider will know for sure. That’s why, ideally, it’s important to work with one who has experience working within the unique regulatory requirements of the aerospace sector. They should be able to set realistic expectations, quickly determine whether or not your design is feasible, provide constructive feedback, make material recommendations and advise on which technologies would be best suited to specific components or designs.

Focused on sustainability

In a world characterised by volatility, it’s impossible to stay in one spot for long. From year to year, your business objectives will change, you may have to adapt to new market demands, or regulations - such as those around sustainability - may evolve faster than anticipated.

Because of this, the best AM provider is one that’s capable of evolving in step with your business needs. Ideally, they’ll be a partner that can help you create lighter-weight designs, solve for common challenges - like opportunities to reduce jet fuel consumption - or help you build parts that optimise performance in some way, such as by helping you run your engines more efficiently or making them cool faster. When executed well, these steps should help you meet your sustainability goals by shrinking your company’s carbon footprint, supporting cleaner manufacturing practices and producing less waste.

For instance, AM has been known to help aerospace manufacturers consolidate complex components into a single unified body - dramatically reducing the buy-to-fly ratio, slashing weights and shortening lead-times by reducing supply chain complexity.

Additionally, a solid AM provider should have the footprint, capacity and knowledge base to help you move into the future - whether that’s by offering opportunities to obtain local on-demand AM support, reduce exposure to external supply chain risks, effectively scale your AM efforts or increase agility by helping you reduce costs and quickly respond to supply chain disruptions. To do this, they will likely need more than one AM facility in any given area, as well as a robust AM network and proven scalability experience.

Ample capabilities

To gauge whether a company can sustainably meet your business needs, it’s essential to look at their current capabilities, as well as their commitment to keeping pace with technological advancements.

Today, for instance, an AM provider capable of meeting the needs of the aerospace sector should have an assortment of high-performing technologies and services in-house.

This can include capabilities such as: Laser powder bed fusion; Electron beam powder bed fusion; Directed energy deposition; Selective laser sintering; Fused deposition modelling; High speed extrusion; CNC machining; Hot isostatic pressing; Vacuum heat treatment; Surface finishing equipment.

You can also gain a better understanding of their ability to keep pace with a rapidly changing marketplace by looking at their technology investment track record. Plus, they should also be able to offer:

  • A range of materials. For instance, Invar is an exotic material ideal for space applications due to its low coefficient of thermal expansion, which means, unlike other alloys, it can maintain its dimensional stability across a wide temperature range

  • Materials testing laboratory and quality assurance. A leading provider should have a materials laboratory in-house. Through a mix of advanced and non-invasive technologies, this lab should help provide you with the assurance that all your parts and materials possess the strength, characteristics and quality required

  • Post-processing capabilities. A leading provider will offer extensive post-processing capabilities. A vertically-integrated facility will offer things like heat treatment, CNC machining and surface finishing—capabilities that allow an AM partner to enhance a component’s mechanical/metallurgical properties, improve its surface integrity or adjust the geometrical or dimensional requirements

  • Heat treatment options. While these should be part of an AM partner’s post-processing capabilities, it’s important to pay attention to the options a provider offers. For instance, they ideally should be able to offer a wide range of options and recipes in-house—with a range of technologies under one roof. It’s also helpful if a provider is Nadcap accredited.

Find the right partner

When done well, AM is a great tool in an aerospace industry manufacturer’s toolbelt as the right AM advisors, with the right offerings and capabilities, can help a company continually innovate and seamlessly move into the future.

At Burloak Technologies, we’re proud of our longstanding partnerships with many of the world’s leading aerospace manufacturers. These manufacturers rely on us to help them achieve their AM goals due, in large part, to our extensive AM knowledge, leading expertise, vertically integrated in-house solutions, readiness to scale and two North American locations.

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