CORPUS CHRISTI ARMY DEPOT, Texas - It’s all about readiness.
The Corpus Christi Army Depot (CCAD) and U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) have projects to help define the role of advanced manufacturing in Army readiness. In the near future units throughout Army aviation will be able to choose and print replacement parts in the field from a database, thus helping solve a supply challenge.
A subset within advanced manufacturing, additive manufacturing (AD), is a methodology new to Army aviation applications, but not to the aircraft industry. By way of 3D printing, the AD process joins various materials to construct a solitary part, unlike the subtractive manufacturing process. There are seven categories of AD processes: powder bed fusion, binder jetting, direct energy deposition, extrusion, jetting, sheet lamination and vat photo-polymerization.
The specific technologies CCAD engages in advanced manufacturing include cold spray and blue light scanning. "Additive manufacturing can be used to reduce weight, minimize waste, and optimize design stress points that can be prone to failure.” said Kevin Rees, DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center (AvMC) Chief of the Maintenance Airworthiness Engineering Division.
Like sculpting a masterpiece, subtractive manufacturing removes unwanted material. Additive manufacturing reduces waste and sometimes composes lighter parts, utilizing a computer-aided machine which interprets information into several layers of concise geometrical shapes.
Additive manufacturing is considered a transformative approach for the Army that moves CCAD closer to its modernization goals of aircraft production and support of the future vertical lift aircraft.
Electronic files for modern aircraft production are preferred over paper schematics. The U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command is collaborating with Wichita State University to develop a virtual model of the UH-60L Black Hawk using 3D scanning technologies.
"In a way, this is a new era of engineering for Army aviation, and so we all feed off each other's ideas and problems,” said Rees.
More importantly, additive manufacturing balances the benefits of cost, program production and safety regarding logistical challenges like fit, form and functional replacement to existing end items or replacement. DEVCOM and CCAD are fostering a cohesive understanding of terminology, which will affect the enterprise — for example, the differentiation between ground-based and aviation assets.
Rees continued, “Being proactive, CCAD and DEVCOM personnel keep track of the projects performed in the field so that there is a repository of lessons learned.”
The two organizations work in unison with one another. The ability to manufacture complex 3D forms directly from digital data can eliminate the need for complex tooling and specialized work tool motions. This allows for reduced manufacturing lead times and possible localized production, contributing towards more efficient supply chain systems.
“The new technology would have a 50% cycle reduction to our conventional processes,” said Leonel Narvaez, CCAD.
"Each part has its mold and associated costs,” said Patrick Thomas, DEVCOM AvMC aerospace engineer. “That cost versus the cost of one machine capable of producing is in low numbers. Once you reach 100,000 of these parts, traditional manufacturing methods are often more cost effective.”
Additive manufacturing is quickly becoming a priority for the U.S. Army Materiel Command since utilizing a 3D printer aids in the warfighters’ readiness to receive aircraft parts faster.
So what does that means exactly?
According to the article “U.S. Army and WSU creating digital twin of Black Hawk Helicopter” by Tess Boissonneault, "In the scanning process, a part will be completely disassembled, so that the component can be captured and stored as a digital twin. An accessible virtual database of these parts will make it easier to source replacement parts."
“In sustainment engineering, we have much older weapon systems to maintain, and CCAD's artisans play an important part in this,” said CCAD liaison engineering branch chief Clarence Hitchings.
Additive manufacturing is a game-changer in aircraft production, according to DEVCOM. The challenges CCAD faces are the migration of older systems into the digital future. Being an organic enterprise, CCAD is up for the task, firmly wedged in the Army’s modernization momentum.
“The technology is transformational across Army aviation, which provides better mechanical efficiency, less material wastage, shorter design cycles, and less manufacturing lead times,” said Hitchings. “Our engineer's design replacement parts for these helicopters that the machinist inserts into the aircraft, the additive manufacturing is quicker to make a mold than to use the non-dimensional drawings. It's an evolving technology with many applications."