One major industry that has made a point of adopting 3D printing technology for many of its projects is aerospace. Multiple US aerospace companies, and the government, have been researching, using, and promoting the use of 3D printing. The always evolving technology has been used to make new materials for aerospace, as well as interior aircraft parts, dividing walls, and business class seats, high-speed turbines and aircraft wings, and smaller components, such as hydraulic components, nozzles, and sensor housings. We’ve even seen an entire 3D printed plane.
Reducing the weight, and functional complexity, of parts and components in the aerospace and defense industry can really ramp up performance; it also brings down the overall cost and energy. However, 3D printed aircraft parts in the US can’t fly very far without the ever-important approval of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The government agency even had to give its stamp of approval for the first drone package delivery back in 2015.
As the field of aerospace continues to research and use 3D printing technology, the FAA needs to work out some overarching guidance for the coming influx of 3D printed aerospace parts. With this in mind, the agency is working on a comprehensive plan on how to deal with the rate at which the industry is adopting additive manufacturing.At last week’s FAA Additive Aerospace conference, FAA Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor for Fatigue and Damage Tolerance Michael Gorelik said that the technology, and the rate at which the aerospace industry is using it, is making for several regulatory challenges in both the military and the commercial aerospace sectors.
“Three to four years ago, none of my peers believed we would see additive manufacturing of safety-critical parts. We don’t have them yet, but based on the leading indicators I see it’s coming and it’s coming fairly fast,” said Gorelik.
An FAA team submitted a draft of the Additive Manufacturing Strategic Roadmap last month to agency managers so it could be reviewed. The plan notes that further research and development, along with workforce education and training, is needed, and recommends several steps for the FAA to take over the next seven to eight years. These steps will be used to address the technology from a necessary regulatory standpoint – this includes policies for manufacturing, maintenance, and certification.
Gorelik said that the wide variety of 3D printing materials and processes also presents multiple regulatory challenges. The FAA worked on a similar plan while setting up guidance for composites materials, but setting up guidance for additive manufacturing technology is even more difficult because there are multiple companies using multiple processes and materials, all of which are evolving almost constantly; however, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Gorelik explained, “One could try to group them by source of raw material, for example powder versus wire, and by the source of energy used to melt the material, laser versus electron beam versus plasma arc. This variety of processes is great from the technology and business standpoint because it gives industry a great deal of flexibility.”
In the interest of working together for the greater good, the agency shared its draft roadmap with NASA, the US Army, the Aerospace Industries Association’s Additive Manufacturing Working Group, and the US Air Force.
According to Gorelik, the FAA is working with additional industry groups and government agencies on the plan because “we realize we may not currently have enough internal knowledge and expertise.”
“This is a huge technical problem scope. It would be impractical for any single entity to try to address it single handedly,” Gorelik said. “In my mind, collaboration is the key to ensure the safe introduction of this exciting new technology in commercial as well as military aerospace.”
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