Boeing heads direct manufacturing consortium

  • 04-Aug-2008 02:25 EDT
Additive-fabrication machines from EOS are increasingly being used to manufacture production parts.

Aircraft manufacturers are reducing tooling and equipment costs by building production parts with rapid prototyping equipment, a technique called direct manufacturing. Striving for more advances in this area, Boeing recently teamed up with a university and three industrial partners to set up the Direct Manufacturing Research Center in Germany.

EOS Electro Optical Systems, Evonik Industries, MCP HEK Tooling, and Boeing have joined with the University of Paderborn to establish the DMRC. It will be located at the university, which is known for its competencies in mechanical engineering, chemistry, and computer sciences. Funding for the DMRC is expected to reach €11 million over the next five years.

EOS and MCP both produce laser sinter and laser melting systems for metals and polyamides. They create parts using additive processes, building layers of powdered materials and solidifying them using lasers. That eliminates the costs of tooling.

Aircraft suppliers can select from a broad range of materials. EOS is one of a few suppliers whose machines build parts from metals such as titanium, augmenting the many plastics and nylons offered by other suppliers.

Additive production initially was used for rapid prototyping, but in recent years the quality of the parts has improved enough that production parts meet aerospace requirements. Consortium members cite many reasons for adopting the technology.

“Direct manufacturing offers the potential of significantly reducing parts production costs, as well as enhancing the ability to fabricate more complex and more functional component parts,” said Jeff DeGrange, Chairman of the Board of the DMRC and Senior Manager of Direct Digital Manufacturing at Boeing Phantom Works, Boeing’s advanced research and development organization.

Those factors have prompted rapid growth in a new segment of the additive-fabrication market. “We’ve been tracking direct manufacturing for five years, and it’s seen a 32% compound annual growth rate,” said Terry Wohlers, President of Wohlers Associates Inc.

Aerospace companies have been pioneers in this field, since they have fairly low volumes of complex parts, Wohlers added. Material suppliers have focused on meeting aerospace requirements for strength and flammability.

Northwest UAV Propulsion Systems is using EOS equipment to produce aircraft components, including laser-sintered plastic parts for unmanned aerial vehicles. NWUAV went from installation to part production in just 10 days, making parts with precision of 0.001 in.

EOS also has developed polyamides that meet the flammability, smoke, and toxicity standards of the civil aerospace industry. Boeing, Dassault, Embraer, and others have successfully tested the new material. Ogle Models, a British contract manufacturer, has used the polyamides to make two sets of parts for an aircraft cabin and a plane’s fuel tank.

Wohlers noted that direct manufacturing also is being used to make equipment used in factories. “It’s not just the end parts,” he said. “They’re also making things like drill guides and fixtures—a number of things that are expensive to produce and don’t really have any volumes.”

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Boeing and Airbus forecast a worldwide demand for up to 40,000 new aircraft over the next two decades. With a 10-year production backlog and new aircrafts increasingly counting on lightweight composites, manufacturing companies are developing advanced sandwich-structure composite solutions to fill the production gap.

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