Army aviation plays a critical role for Soldiers in battle. Helicopters are used to transport Soldiers and supplies to war zones, conduct reconnaissance missions, strike targets and evacuate injured Soldiers for treatment. As new technology evolves, it is added to military helicopters but the additional weight may adversely affect speed and maneuverability.
While traditional manufacturing requires machining and assembling parts, an innovative process uses Additive Manufacturing to 3D print parts layer by layer. AM offers the most capability when it is used in the design process to replace complex assemblies by consolidating parts, which reduces weight and increases performance. The U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center, GE Aviation and the Army ManTech program worked together on the Direct Digital Manufacturing program to additively manufacture a prototype T700 engine inlet swirl frame, which is used on UH-60 Blackhawk and AH-64 Apache helicopters.
The T700 engine inlet swirl frame, which is used for anti-icing, bird strike protection, foreign object damage prevention and oil delivery, was selected from numerous other candidates. A Concept Laser Atlas Machine was used to additively manufacture the swirl frame prototype. The prototype design consolidated 147 parts to 25 parts, reducing the component weight while also reducing manufacturing process steps and production cycle time, making the part more cost effective.
"Additively manufacturing quality parts with large complex geometries is challenging. This program demonstrates this type of part is viable when considering both economical and quality control perspectives in a production environment," said Jeffrey Gaddes, CCDC AvMC Manufacturing Science and Technology Division engineer.
AM components offer many benefits to Army aviation, but the technology is just now progressing to flight worthy capability for critical end use parts. One of the first critical applications of the AM process was GE's qualification and production of AM fuel injector tips for the LEAP engine in 2015.
“As the technology matures, enabling more affordable qualification and certification of additively manufactured parts, AM will be more broadly adopted in Army aviation. For this reason, investment in programs such as DDM is important,” said Katherine Olson, CCDC AvMC Manufacturing Science and Technology Division AM lead.
The project is in the final phase; the ManTech program plans to deliver a T700 engine inlet swirl frame for engine ground testing in 2021.
AM technologies are expected to be a major part of producing components for the Army’s T901 advanced turboshaft engine, which will replace T700 engines on Blackhawk and Apache helicopters.
“The T901 program is producing its first pieces of AM hardware that will go into test engines right now,” said CCDC AvMC Production Engineer Mallory James, who supports the Army’s Improved Turbine Engine Product Office that manages the T901 program. “The ManTech team has been a great resource for me to get connected within the AM community and to get up to speed on the technology quickly. They’ve been valuable teammates in our office’s efforts to identify potential risks and ask GE the right questions as the program progresses through development towards production.”
To further streamline manufacturing processes, future plans include in process monitoring to assess the quality of parts in real time and a transition to concept laser’s next generation machine, the M-Line. The M-Line is designed and built for high volume production and utilizes quad-laser technology. Implementation of these technologies will continue to drive down cost and shorten the manufacturing cycle time.
The Army’s ManTech program is executed by CCDC – a major subordinate command of the Army Futures Command – with oversight from the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics and Technology), Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Research and Technology. The ManTech program provides funding for Army technology, helping projects to transition to a Program Executive Office. The ManTech program and CCDC AvMC are both part of the U.S. Army Futures Command.