Adept at additive

Ascent is championing its large-scale 3D printed tooling capabilities
Ascent is championing its large-scale 3D printed tooling capabilities

In a Q&A session, Ascent Aerospace explains how its expertise helps provide the right solution for the right problem, so that its customers know they’re getting quality work products.


Ascent Aerospace is a provider of tooling for composite aerostructures, jigs & fixtures for aircraft assembly, and automation and integration solutions. The company has developed two engineering Centres of Excellence, an integration group, and acquired Brown Aerospace and Gemcor for automated solutions. In 2014, Ascent expanded into Europe by acquiring Areva TA’s aerospace division and opened a UK office a year later.

Ascent is currently championing its large-scale 3D printed tooling capabilities and its hybrid Invar/composite mould tooling solution, HyVarC. The company’s 10’ x 40’ large scale additive manufacturing (LSAM) 3D printer can provide rapid tooling and prototyping services while HyVarC offers a cost-effective, lightweight, short lead-time solution for composite fabrication.

Q) To begin with, what is the breakdown of your pattern & mould making and tooling making services and solutions?

The aerospace and defence tooling market continues to evolve every year, as does the exact breakdown of moulds, tooling, and services we provide. We are typically a relatively even split between mould and trim tooling for composite fabrication, auxiliary and assembly tooling, and integration and automation.

Q) Give me a feel for the size, scope and lead-times of the pattern & mould work you do? What industries do you supply into?

Our expertise in pattern & mould covers every size range and use case in aerospace, including commercial, defence, and space applications. We have been successful in leveraging our heritage tooling capabilities to support the increased needs of the commercial space exploration industry. On the smaller end of the size spectrum, we fabricate tool strings for access panels and control surfaces that can be built in a matter of 4-8 weeks. Our largest moulds are used for wing skins and fuselage barrels for large commercial programmes, such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 777X, and can take up to one year to fabricate and weigh over 40 tonnes.

Our recent implementation of the LSAM 3D printing process has allowed us to reduce our lead-times for certain types of tools and expand our industry footprint. LSAM enables the fabrication of trim tools and large prototypes in a matter of days or weeks and we are discovering a lot of applications in marine, automotive and renewable energy for quick-turn, cost-effective tooling.

Q) What are the types of performance demands placed on your company by today’s customers?

As always, price, quality, and delivery remain crucial factors and are the foundation to having successful customer relationships. Beyond that, different companies and programmes value different things and our goal is to provide the best solution based on those priorities. That is why it is so important that our commercial, technical, and programme teams get to know the customer as early in the programme as possible in order to clearly identify what creates value for them.

For some programmes, providing a sound technical solution with the flexibility to adjust to customer requirements is crucial to winning work and maintaining a good relationship. For others, it is about responsiveness and execution; get it done right and get it done quickly. At the end of the day, we want to provide the right solution at the right cost in the right amount of time, and we will work as close as we can with the customer to make it happen.

Q) If applicable, tell me more about your CNC machining centre equipment.

All of our CNC machining centres support our tooling business. We currently have the largest set of machining centres dedicated to aerospace tooling in the US, with over 30 high-speed, high-velocity machines between our California and Michigan operations.

Q) Is there a particular success story you can briefly talk about?

Here at our Santa Ana site, we recently completed a tool set for a mid-sized commercial programme that is a great showcase for both of our newer HyVarC and LSAM solutions. Our customer was facing a compressed schedule and ongoing production development work that would lead to engineering changes. With a typical tooling approach, this would delay the start of tool fabrication until final engineering is set. The speed and flexibility of both HyVarC and LSAM tooling gave us an alternate solution that pulled weeks of delays out of the schedule.

The HyVarC approach for layup moulds allowed us to take the potential surface changes into account up front, using the flexible composite working surface as a buffer, and start tool fabrication months before engineering was finished. Once the final surface data was locked, we then re-machined our composite surface to its final contour and shipped the completed mould tool in a matter of weeks. This not only saved weeks of schedule delay (allowing our customer the time to make the right engineering decision), it also reduced the overall risk of future changes requiring a completely new tool.

Supplied by Thermwood, Ascent’s 10’ x 40’ LSAM 3D printer can provide rapid tooling and prototyping services
Supplied by Thermwood, Ascent’s 10’ x 40’ LSAM 3D printer can provide rapid tooling and prototyping services

Our LSAM printed tooling was similarly able to reduce the fabrication schedule for associated trim tools, with the added benefit of greatly reducing build complexity. Using an ABS chopped carbon fibre blend, we designed and printed a large trim tool in just one week with a near-net surface profile that allowed for some engineering flexibility. While fabricating the complex tool surface using traditional metal techniques would have taken multiple weeks, the LSAM print process took just a single day. Once the customer’s surface was finalised, the tool went straight to machining and assembly for a rapid delivery.

Q) What is the main focus areas of your current R&D efforts?

Ascent still maintains R&D efforts in its key product lines, including new drilling and fastening technologies, the integration of those technologies into the automation business, developing our 3D printed tooling capabilities, and pushing new features and materials for our mould tooling. Our LSAM progress, from new material qualification, the development of processing parameters, and functional testing for different end-use applications, remains a major focus moving forward.

Q) Finally, what differentiates your company from the competition and why should a customer use you over your nearest rival?

The foundation of our value proposition to customers is built upon our heritage tooling sites. Coast, Odyssey, and GTS all come together with broad coverage in every aspect of aerospace tooling and the additions of Brown, Gemcor and Areva further boost our automation and integration proficiency. That expertise allows us to provide the right solution for the right problem and our customers know that they’re getting quality work products from each one of our facilities.

We have a proven track record building everything from simple metallic moulds and workstands to complex assembly jigs with automation. At the same time, we are able to leverage that history and knowledge base to develop new products and react quickly to new requirements. We have a great team that can listen to the market and adapt to new trends while balancing our innovative developments with proven solutions.

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