Bridging the Trust Gap in Aerospace for Widespread Adoption of Metal AM

July 19, 2021

When we talk about metal additive manufacturing (AM) in parts production, oftentimes we wind up discussing this emerging technology as a disruption to the old ways of manufacturing. Legacy production methods like brazing, welding, and casting represent the “old guard”. And while those methods are tried and true, more than anything they’re “trusted.”

In industries like aerospace and aviation that require extensive certification, qualification, and validation before manufactured parts can be widely produced for commercial use, this process of trust building moves slowly.

Aerospace is an industry with a lot of oversight—justifiably so given how high the stakes are should a part fail. Yet the resistance to new production techniques may be stifling innovations that could provide widespread improvements to fuel efficiency, flight range, parts production cycles, the consolidation of crucial parts, and the building of more efficient supply chains—all of which can benefit both big and small players in the industry.

In a recent VELOVirtual webinar, experts from the aviation and space industries sat down to discuss some of the barriers preventing trust in metal AM as a widely accepted parts manufacturing process, and where the industry needs to get to adopt additive in a more substantial way.

“We need mountains of data”

To manufacture a part for use in commercial aviation and manned space flight, there are several barriers that must be overcome. The qualification process is exhaustive to meet the regulatory requirements necessary to satisfy governmental and industry oversight entities.

Furthermore, the regulatory apparatus remains centered on legacy manufacturing processes. To validate parts, there are several tests, including forms of non-destructive testing, x-rays, CT scanning, and more, that all work to build trust and confidence in the production process.

But because many of the standards set for this testing are guided by legacy manufacturing processes, results can vary wildly when applied to metal AM.

AM is a unique manufacturing process. While printing, you are creating a part, but you are also creating the material by melting and welding together powdered metal. In effect, you are performing two steps in one.

Manufacturers looking to quality as a single step will face challenges. Instead, they need to break down the qualification: first for the material and then for the part geometry. But many manufacturers implement different process parameters for their parts to complete their print. This means that there is very little standardization from one printer to another.

Unless you are a very large, heavily capitalized company, qualification for the highest levels of industry may be out of reach.

Even as additive manufacturing rises in adoption for its ability to lower the barrier of entry for parts production with regards to time and cost, many manufacturers that work in additive are starting from scratch, or close to it.

As a result, the post-production testing and validation can outpace the costs of production, which means that additional barriers present themselves for startup manufacturers that deploy additive manufacturing.

“There’s a lot we do, but at the basis of it is understanding the printed material, the properties it gives you: the strength, the density, the chemistry, all that” said Brian Baughman, Manufacturing Chief Engineer for Honeywell Aerospace. “You do some tensile data, you do some fatigue data, but sometimes it’s just a small subset. We need mountains of data. We will spend probably over $1 million just to characterize one single alloy for printed additive.”

Space, by contrast

Though there are several barriers for qualification of parts in aviation and manned space flight, unmanned space flight presents a stark contrast to what happens when regulatory requirements are eased.

By allowing more room for adoption of new production techniques, space exploration gives startups leeway to drive innovation by lowering barriers of entry, particularly in early testing phases.

“Our goal is the lowest cost. So, we only do any post-processing or inspection processes if we have to,” said Max Haot, Founder and CEO of Launcher.

If the goal is to drive innovation and adapt production techniques to the times, there is going to need to be a change with how aviation and aerospace looks at additive manufacturing and adjusts their paradigm to new modes of production.

Building confidence in additive manufacturing through cooperation

Part of building trust in a process is communicating transparency and oversight. At Velo3D, quality assurance is integrated into the end-to-end production cycle of a part. With in-situ data tracking during every phase of the printing process, the Velo3D Assure™ software closely monitors both the printer and the part, layer by layer.

“As a manufacturing technology company, our goal is to give customers the tools they need to have confidence in the quality of the printed part,” says Dr. Zach Murphree, VP of Technical Partnerships at Velo3D. “That’s the critical deliverable, especially in aerospace, where you’re talking about confidence intervals in your quality of part. One of the things that we’re really focused on is building inspection and metrology abilities into the equipment so while you’re manufacturing the product you get a lot of data that’s actionable and intelligent and allows you to have confidence.”

One of the differences with Velo3D’s solution is that is comes with a rich library of standardized parameter sets to print the most complex geometries. While this enables companies to create previously impossible parts, the key word here is ‘standardized.’

This means that the material properties generated by Velo3D printers are conformal for each material. This further enables the generation of pedigreed datasets, like MMPDS (Metallic Materials Properties Development and Standardization), at the supplier level.

With this model, each company that owns a Velo3D solution is able to produce parts formed from quantitatively understood materials—a first in the industry.

For a more widespread acceptability and adoption of metal AM in the aerospace and aviation industry, there must be a standardization of baseline metrics that can be used by regulatory bodies to determine part quality.

While different machines, and different AM production techniques makes standardization challenging, with Velo3D’s unique approach to the market, it’s possible that a regulatory framework can be built around current validation practices in the industry.

“One of the things that’s going on that I’m excited about is we’re starting to see more data consortiums forming to develop things like specification minimums,” says Laura Ely, Director of Programs for The Barnes Global Advisors. “While they might not be at full MMPDS design allowables, all of these things are showing a level of maturity [in the AM industry].”

As the additive manufacturing industry continues to evolve, regulation will evolve with it. The current growing pains are a sign that innovation in the AM space, and more widespread adoption of the technology, is bumping up against slower moving forces like oversight agencies in aerospace and aviation.

With cooperation and further innovation, however, the sky’s the limit for metal AM in aerospace.

Contact us today to get the conversation started and to learn more about Velo3D’s complete end-to-end additive manufacturing solution.

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About the Author

Amir Iliaifar

Director of Content

Amir Iliaifar is the Director of Content at Velo3D where he oversees the production and distribution of Velo3D’s global digital content marketing initiatives. Prior to joining the company, Amir worked for a leading professional drone manufacturer, several SaaS companies, and as an automotive tech journalist. He holds a Master of Arts in Digital Communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.