Are 3D-printed Planes Coming to a Sky Near You?
Michael Alba posted on April 24, 2018 |
Boeing’s Terry McGowan discusses additive manufacturing and the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform.
Additive manufacturing and generative design combine for more efficient parts. (Image courtesy of Boeing.)
Additive manufacturing and generative design combine for more efficient parts. (Image courtesy of Boeing.)

Last week in sunny San Diego, Calif., experts of Dassault Systèmes gathered for the annual Community of Experts (COE) Experience and TechniFair. These experts included users, partners and educators of Dassault solutions such as CATIA V5 and 3DEXPERIENCE Platform.

One such expert was Terry McGowan, Boeing associate technical fellow. On the opening day of COE 2018, he took the main stage to speak about Boeing’s vision for additive manufacturing (AM). Like its signature 747 aircraft, Boeing’s vision for AM is sky high.

“We believe there’s going to be huge potential for this technology,” McGowan said. “We’re very, very close to a Star Trek replicator.”

Additive Manufacturing

Terry McGowan, Boeing associate technical fellow. (Image courtesy of LinkedIn.)
Terry McGowan, Boeing associate technical fellow. (Image courtesy of LinkedIn.)

AM—aka 3D printing—has been gaining rapid prominence in the past few years. It is being used in industry, education and academia, and by hobbyists and makers. It’s not that the technology is brand new—the concept stretches back to the early 80s—but as it’s matured, complementary technologies like generative design have boosted it to become a real disruptor. As McGowan pointed out in his talk, there’s a lot of reasons to get behind AM:

  • Part cost reduction: It can allow for unitized assemblies, cutting down the number of parts and thus cutting down on cost.
  • Part availability: When you can print your part at the press of a button, lead time and inventory management become a thing of the past.
  • Part performance improvement: Printed parts allow for designs that aren’t achievable with traditional manufacturing methods, such as optimized lightweight designs.
  • Improved safety: The reduced mass and number of parts means safer installation, and 3D-printed parts can be made with ergonomics in mind.

But as far as it has come and as lofty as its promise, AM still has a way to go. What better test for the technology than the most robust, stringent industry around—aerospace? If you can 3D print parts for a plane, you can 3D print anything. Boeing works toward the goal of realizing skyworthy printed parts.

“Take the front strut on a 787, for instance,” McGowan said. “When we run the hydraulics down the side of a huge monolithic piece of titanium, that is the front strut of an aircraft. In the future, we can just print that monolithic assembly with all of the functional requirements built into it and remove the need to run those additional lines.”

The Complexity of the AM Process

The world’s largest solid 3D-printed part, a wing trim and drill tool, was printed by Boeing in 2016. The 1650-pound, Guinness-record-holding object is shown during printing. (Image courtesy of Boeing.)
The world’s largest solid 3D-printed part, a wing trim and drill tool, was printed by Boeing in 2016. The 1650-pound, Guinness-record-holding object is shown during printing. (Image courtesy of Boeing.)

To create consistently reliable printed parts, the sheer number of production parameters that must be considered makes for a complex AM process. McGowan listed several of these parameters in his talk:

  • Material: Including material type, powder size and powder purity
  • Design: Including geometry, overhang and support structures
  • Layout: Including part orientation, proximity and build space packing
  • Process: Including applied energy, end effector speed, inert atmosphere and over 200 others
  • Post-process: Including heat treatment, Hot Isostatic Pressing (HIP), surface smoothing and shot peening

On top of this, engineers using AM must consider residual stress, heat dissipation, surface finish, anisotropy in the z-axis, shrinkage and micro-melting. That’s a lot to keep track of. AM still needs a set of complete, sound specifications for these parameters and considerations.

To develop these specifications and reduce the complexity of AM, one critical element that McGowan pointed out was information technology. Last year, Boeing adopted Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE Platform across its entire organization. One of the selling points of 3DEXPERIENCE is the consolidation of data, and in McGowan’s view, data is essential to AM.

“In the past, information technology has been looked upon as a support organization. But not anymore,” he said. “In the 21st century, data is where we’re going to manage everything. It’s a data-centric value stream. And that means IT has to be tied to the hip of all the efforts as we structure and industrialize this [AM] value stream.”

Addressing Complexity with the Digital Thread

Screenshot of the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
Screenshot of the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Boeing’s move to the 3DEXPERIENCE Platform was a crucial step in developing its AM value stream, according to McGowan.

“What's the solution that Boeing is going to use to create this industrialized value stream?” he asked the COE audience. “It starts with 3DEXPERIENCE. This new platform that Dassault is offering to us is a departure from a file-based system. This plays a big role in how all of these tools are going to work in concert with one another to help us be successful in creating this industrialized value stream.”

McGowan said the first step in Boeing’s AM process is using EXALEAD, Dassault Systèmes’ data discovery software, to identify and select parts for AM. From there, he illustrated a digital thread—so-called for the integrated nature of data across all steps—that takes the part all the way to manufacture. Here are the steps in that digital thread:

  1. AM part selection: Identify ideal part candidates for AM
  2. Model creation/import: Import or create the part model
  3. Functional generative design: Refine the design to reduce weight and consolidate parts
  4. Printing preparation: Determine support structures, print orientation and more
  5. Manufacturing print simulation: Simulate the printing process to predict deformation
  6. Part compensation: Compensate for predicted deformation
  7. Build package distribution: Create and securely deliver the build package

FAA Certification

The world’s first FAA-approved 3D-printed structural titanium component will fly on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)
The world’s first FAA-approved 3D-printed structural titanium component will fly on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. (Image courtesy of Business Wire.)

Though there’s still work remaining, Boeing has already made some significant breakthroughs in AM. Today, there are more than 50,000 3D-printed components flying onboard Boeing aircrafts. Last year, Boeing and Norsk Titanium AS received the first Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for a 3D-printed structural titanium part, set to fly on Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

“Boeing has just been successful in a first structural flyaway part based on Ti [titanium] wire feed,” McGowan said. “We have the FAA certification on that process now. But the powder bed process is where we still have a lot of work to do. We have to show that repeatable process; we have to demonstrate that our process is consistent and repeatable to the FAA to receive that conformity from them.”

For more about Boeing’s AM strategy, check out Boeing Talks 3D Printing for Aerospace.

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