Aerospace/defense giant Boeing, along with think tank Applied Science and Technology Research Organization (ASTRO) America, announced that they have collaborated to 3D print a main rotor link assembly for Boeing’s AH-64 Apache attack helicopter. Printed in 6000 series aluminum alloy, the part was produced at Illinois’ Rock Island Arsenal for the Jointless Hull Project.
The Jointless Hull Project revolves around what has been referred to as the “world’s largest” metal 3D printer: a 30-feet long, 12-feet high, 20-feet wide machine incorporating MELD Manufacturing technology and an Ingersoll Machine Tools platform, and operated via Siemens software. Rotor systems produced with existing conventional methods currently require about a year of lead time to be delivered, whereas the Jointless Hull system finished the part in eight hours.
This is the latest in a series of announcements over the last couple of weeks related to 3D printed parts for helicopters, another of which — an engine part made utilizing powder bed fusion (PBF) from GE — also involved Boeing’s Apache helicopter, among others. Illustrating that the trend is not just an American one, Airbus announced last week that the company is using Trumpf 3D printers to produce parts for several different Airbus crafts, including the experimental, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) Racer helicopter.
Boeing and ASTRO America are planning to collaborate on more 3D printed parts, efforts which will include “full-scale fatigue testing” in April 2024, reinforcing the idea that this is a space with ample room for expansion. Given how reliant helicopters, in particular, are on constant availability of maintenance, repair, and operation (MRO) servicing, it is especially realistic to think that qualification in this area of military sustainment could quickly lead to significant demand growth.
Beyond the direct benefits to helicopter supply chains, specifically, Boeing’s involvement is noteworthy insofar as it is a member of the Biden administration’s AM Forward initiative. ASTRO America has taken the lead in implementing AM Forward Florida (AMF-FL), which is serving as a pilot program for the overall endeavor.
Although there have been few explicit public updates to the activities of AM Forward since its initial announcement in May 2022, as I’ve written in multiple posts recently, there are nonetheless reasons to believe that this could change soon — with ASTRO America’s activities being some of the best evidence of that. And, if/when that does change, the progress can be expected to abruptly pick up momentum, as the initiative’s structure seems to be designed to gradually and methodically lay the groundwork before moving on to the next, scaled-up phase.
With that in mind, the best way to attempt to predict what’s on the horizon for AM Forward is likely to simply track what the participating corporations and institutions have put at the forefront of their AM activities over the last several years. Since AM is still largely a game of Manufacturing Readiness Level (MRL), the element of surprise with AM Forward can be expected to surround when and how it publicly moves to the next stage — as opposed to what types of applications it is most likely to have relevance for. The latter should be able to be gleaned from analyzing the applications that companies like Boeing have spent the most time and effort developing since early 2022.
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