Over the last few years, more and more 3D printing innovations have been coming out of South Africa, like the country’s first platinum 3D print. The technology also has its uses in the country’s defense sector, as the South African Air Force (SAAF) uses 3D printing to keep on top of things, even under a strict budget.
South African defense company Paramount Group is looking to use digital manufacturing to attain self-sufficiency, in an effort to introduce a purpose-designed platform to the light surveillance/attack aircraft market.
The company purposely chose this type of aircraft, rather than utility or agricultural, for its unique venture. The Ahrlac (Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance Light Aircraft) and its armed variant, the Mwari, are being developed and produced in a new factory at Wonderboom Airport by Ahrlac Holdings, which is co-owned by Paramount.
Paramount says that it has already begun production on customer aircraft, though it won’t disclose any specifics about its launch customers, and the first one should be ready late in the second quarter of 2018.
3D printing technology is often used in aerospace applications today, thanks to its potential for design complexity and the fact that it can make more lightweight parts, which is obviously important when you’re high above the ground. Many airplanes now feature 3D printed parts, and the Ahrlac can now join the ranks, as it incorporates more than 60 3D printed polymer parts for ducting.
Two prototype aircraft, which were built at Aerosud‘s aerospace innovation center, have already taken to the friendly skies…or not-so-friendly, when you remember that their purpose is for missions like military training, border security, and anti-poaching. But now, the whole project has fully transitioned to the new 15,000-square-meter factory at Wonderboom, which is designed to produce up to two aircraft each month and takes advantage of Aerosud’s experience in producing parts for Airbus and Boeing.
Paramount stated, “All Ahrlac parts are manufactured at the new Wonderboom production facility, with very little outsourcing to other suppliers. This has been driven mainly by the need to have total control over the incorporation of the latest materials, digital design processes and digital manufacturing technologies.”
This control, according to Paramount, “could only be achieved by vertically integrating the full Ahrlac life cycle, and particularly manufacture, without being burdened by a lagging supply chain. So Wonderboom receives raw materials at one end and delivers the completed aircraft at the other end.”
The first prototype, the XDM, has completed 350 hours of flight-testing since it was first flown in July of 2014 and is “performing brilliantly,” according to Paramount, while the PDM, Paramount’s production-representative prototype, began its flight-testing this past summer.
The production-ready PDM features several improvements over its predecessor, including a new propeller and exhaust system for noise reduction, a more lightweight airframe and retractable landing gear, an onboard oxygen-generating system, twin Martin-Baker ejection seats, a revised cockpit canopy, improved handling for maneuvers, and an open-architecture “plug-and-play” avionics system.
The Ahrlac was digitally prototyped first, using the latest Dassault Systèmes CATIA design modules and simulation.
“By the time we built the first prototype, that aircraft was built to production-like standards,” said Paul Potgieter, Director of Ahrlac Holdings. “The second prototype is fully to production standards.”
Due to an arms embargo imposed on South Africa during the 1980s and ’90s in an attempt to end the Apartheid regime, the country’s defense industry had to become self-sufficient, which is why companies like Aerosud learned how to modify aircraft on their own.
Since most of the country’s aerospace supply chain was gone, Paramount needed self-sufficiency in order to produce parts for the Ahrlac, which is why nearly all of the non-engine parts, even hydraulic pumps, were manufactured locally. This could, according to Paramount, “pave the way for the aircraft being largely free of export restrictions.”
In order to attain this level of self-sufficiency, companies like Paramount and Aerosud have heavily invested in modern manufacturing technology, such as five-axis machining and 3D printing. Aerosud has experience 3D printing titanium parts for aircraft flight-testing, thanks to the Aeroswift project with South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Under the project, Aerosud and CSIR’s National Laser Center are working to develop a powder-based 3D printer that is capable of 3D printing large titanium parts at high speed, thanks to a 5-kW laser, a scan speed of up to 50 m/sec, and a build volume of 2 x 0.6 x 0.6 m.
The Ahrlac will then be modified into the armed Mwari. The Mwari, while smaller, less powerful, and more lightweight than the other aircraft it will be up against, has an interchangeable multimission pod in the lower fuselage, which allows it to quickly switch roles – the pod will be capable of carrying systems from electronic and communications intelligence and cargo to synthetic-aperture radar and infrared sensors.
Ivor Ichikowitz, the Founder and Executive Chairman of the Paramount Group, said, “We have not simply created an armed variant of a civilian crop-duster, but produced an aircraft designed for ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] and CAS [close air support] missions in every millimeter of its design. It is designed for purpose—specifically for the kind of remote, hybrid ISR and CAS missions that the world’s air forces are increasingly being called upon to perform.”
Paramount says the Mwari is an integrated, advanced smart platform that allows for various systems configurations to meet customer requirements thanks to its “proprietary mission system and data-processing technology combined with an open architecture.”
“The next steps in the process are weapons clearance trials and military qualification. We are working with the South African government on this and also engaging with a number of foreign governments in this regard, as each customer has different requirements,” Paramount said.
The company will develop a full ecosystem of AI, interface, payloads, sensors, and weapon systems for the Mwari.
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