Air Force Awards $1.25M Contract for 3D Printing In-Situ Monitoring Solution to Phase3D

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The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has awarded a contract to Phase3D, a Chicago-based startup specializing in in-situ monitoring (ISM) solutions for powder-based additive manufacturing (AM), to develop a quality assurance (QA) system specifically for cold spray platforms. By the end of the two-year, $1.25 million contract, Phase3D will install the new system at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota.

In the last few years, the Department of Defense (DoD) has shown increasing interest in cold spray AM (CSAM), due to its unique potential for deployability, its relative quickness compared to other AM technologies, and the fact that it has shown particular viability for use in repairs. Phase3D will work with VRC Metals, an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of CSAM machines based in South Dakota, to adapt Phase3D’s Fringe inspection system to the VRC platform.

VRC makes a broad range of machines — including multiple systems that can be deployed in the field — as well as a variety of materials and post-processing solutions. Lockheed Martin recently gave the company an Exceptional Small Business Award, so Fringe’s compatibility with VRC should add to Phase3D’s reputation as a favorite in the ISM market for the AM sector. That reputation is borne out by Fringe’s use at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), as I wrote recently in a post about the 2nd ASTM International report on ISM for 3D printing.

VRC’s Brolga-003 Mobile Cold Spray System. Image courtesy of VRC Metals

In Phase3D’s press release about the $1.25 million AFRL contract for development of a Fringe system that’s compatible with CSAM platforms, it notes, “This system will produce the same high-quality quantitative heights maps for the metal powder deposited onto the substrate [that Phase3D has developed for powder bed fusion and binder jetting], as well as an intuitive visualization platform for technicians and engineers. The goals of the project are to validate a working concept of structured light measurements on a CSAM system and demonstrate the full solution for real time quality monitoring to support recladding, repair, and reinforcement. This project will work to provide a basis for the creation of specifications and printing guidelines for CSAM.”

Image courtesy of Phase3D

I’m very optimistic about CSAM precisely because I think the relative simplicity of the hardware’s underlying technology compared to other metal AM techniques, should, in the long run, make QA a much easier task for CSAM than for powder bed fusion (PBF) and binder jetting platforms. At the same time, the ability for the CSAM to work in combination with those two other classes of AM hardware should allow each technique to become optimized more quickly than would be possible for any of the individual techniques, on their own. That is, the ideal scenario could be something along the lines of using PBF for castings and forgings, binder jetting for small parts, and CSAM for repairs.

Of course, that’s one of the primary factors that makes the role of a company like Phase3D so important: none of the technologies can “talk to each other” unless they’re all integrated at similar paces into the same AM software ecosystem. The larger is the scale of the contracts involved — and I think announcements like this one already hint that the scale of AM contracts is starting to hit expansion mode — the more important data becomes, to ensure that the money spent is being allocated as effectively as possible. Phase3D is certainly ahead of the curve in the race for the best data.

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