The unique abilities that helicopters possess have allowed for tasks to be completed that have not been possible by use of other aircrafts. Today, helicopters are widely applicable to transportation, tourism, law enforcement, construction, military, and other settings. The utilization of additive manufacturing will soon change the way helicopters are produced and operated, allowing for manufacturers to build them at lower costs and provide pilots with greater ease of use. Integrating 3D printers with helicopter manufacturing is eligible for R&D tax credits.

The Research & Development Tax Credit

Enacted in 1981, the federal Research and Development (R&D) Tax Credit allows a credit of up to 13 percent of eligible spending for new and improved products and processes. Qualified research must meet the following four criteria:

  • New or improved products, processes, or software
  • Technological in nature
  • Elimination of uncertainty
  • Process of experimentation

Eligible costs include employee wages, cost of supplies, cost of testing, contract research expenses, and costs associated with developing a patent. On December 18, 2015 President Obama signed the bill making the R&D Tax Credit permanent. Beginning in 2016, the R&D credit can be used to offset Alternative Minimum Tax and startup businesses can utilize the credit against $250,000 per year in payroll taxes.

The Advantages to 3D printing Helicopter Parts

The science of 3D printing helicopter parts is moving in a direction where it will be far easier to design and manufacture parts. 3D printing allows for tool-less manufacturing that would eliminate many expenses. For helicopter parts, the traditional manufacturing method requires a mold, machining tools, and piecewise part assembly, all of which require labor, time, and capital. However, the integration of 3D printing would speed up this process and allow for components to be printed in one whole piece instead of sections. It would also permit modifying a single part by simply revising the CAD file instead of having to adjust the entire manufacturing process for that one part.

Companies Experimenting with 3D Printing

Bell Hellicopter Textron Inc.

3D printed helicopter ductwork pieces [Image: EOS]

The first company to receive certification for commercial helicopters in the early 1940s has since been improving its manufacturing capabilities. The company sold well over 35,000 helicopters worldwide and just recently started to implement 3D printed parts into its processes. New printing software allowed Bell to experiment with high-temperature plastics that could be used for demanding roles in helicopters. The new printing software experimentation provides crisp details and smooth finishes with little residue left behind, allowing for many financial benefits.

Airbus

3D printed helicopter windshield wiper prototypes [Image: TCT]

Aviation giant Airbus is quickly proving that once unreachable tasks are now tangible with the addition of 3D printing. Airbus utilizes large-format machinery to assist in prototyping helicopter parts to incorporate onto aircraft. Compared to traditional methods, Airbus can manufacture parts quicker and more economically than thought possible. The company would like to expand its capabilities to enable 3D printing to become the standard in its production.

Mecaer Aviation Group

End use 3D printed interior parts [Image: Mecaer]

This high-end helicopter interior designer has been utilizing 3D printing to improve its designs. In order to enhance in-flight experiences, the company experimented with materials that reduce noise and vibrations to create a more comfortable flight. Using advanced materials such as carbon-filled nylon, the company has been able to find easier solutions to customer customization for a lesser cost while maintaining high-end quality.

SAFRAN Turbomeca

[Image: Safran]

This helicopter engine manufacturer based in Bordes, France has begun producing helicopter components using 3D printing methods. Turbomeca makes parts that are safe enough to be flight ready and assembled directly on helicopters. They are one of few companies to utilize the Selective Laser Melting method of 3D printing for parts. In comparison to Selective Laser Sintering, which involves fusing two materials together to create a part, the Selective Laser Melting process involves melting material into a final product. Turbomeca’s parts, such as the Arrano fuel-injector nozzle, were made from a single piece of nickel-based alloy powder material and exhibited advanced injection and cooling functions upon use.

Lockheed Martin/Sikorsky

This is one of the leading aircraft manufacturers, headquartered in Stratford, Connecticut. It is beginning to explore the use of 3D and additive manufacturing processes, which most of its competitors already take advantage of. The company currently engages in 3D printing of satellite parts. It created its 6th Entrepreneurial Challenge (EChallenge) for companies and teams around the world to submit 3D printing technology ideas. Some of these ideas are intended to have an impact on Sikorsky’s adoption of 3D printing aircraft parts. Lockheed Martin’s Robert Ghoberial created the 5Ps of Additive Manufacturing to describe how additive manufacturing will benefit aerospace, defense, and other businesses. The model includes a proposal, prototype, procurement, production support, and production. The company is carefully taking into consideration all features of 3D printing before fully adopting it.

Conclusion

The use of 3D printing technology in the helicopter industry is expanding across the globe. The top helicopter and aviation manufacturers have found applications of 3D printing that reduce manufacturing costs, especially those relating to small, complex parts. Soon, 3D printing methods will be used for mass production of helicopters and other aircraft.

 


Charles Goulding and Ryan Donley of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing in the manufacture of helicopters.

 

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