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AEROSPACE MANUFACTURING Aerospace manufacturing: Additive creating value beyond part printing

Jun 17, 2021

Rajendra Velagapudi, Senior Vice President & Global Head – Manufacturing Operations, Cyient; Priyanka Nadig, Senior Technology Lead – Additive Manufacturing, Cyient - The manufacturing industry has always been keen on reducing their time-to-market and reducing downtimes in process. Technological trends like AR/VR, Big Data, AI, ML, AM, etc are helping companies through this journey. The article by Cyient - a global engineering and technology solutions company that engages with customers across their value chain helping to design, build, operate and maintain the products and services – focuses specifically on the technology AM, i.e., Additive Manufacturing in the aerospace sector its biggest challenges over the years, how the technology helps company become seamless in its operations and its impact on the manufacturing sector.

One of the key aims of aerospace manufacturing is to have the fastest time-to-market without compromising quality, services and solutions. Technological trends such as Big Data, cloud computing, Augmented & Virtual Reality (AR/VR) and Additive Manufacturing (AM) are supporting companies in driving digital transformation in manufacturing by integrating systems and processes. Embracing digital transformation has created a whole slew of benefits, including greater agility for seamless product development, manufacturing and faster time-to-market.

The additive evolution

AM is an advanced manufacturing process that involves creating a 3D model in a CAD software, transferring the CAD file to the printer, printing the parts layer-wise and performing the post-processing steps to get the desired surface finish. Unlike conventional manufacturing processes, this technology does not require cumbersome tools or mould revisions, eliminating the time and cost associated with production change-over. Furthermore, advanced topology and generative design tools used in the 3D Printing process provide freedom of design, allowing one to create parts that are consolidated, complex in design and light in weight along with enhanced efficiency (Figure 1).

Only a few years ago, the benefits of AM remained speculative. The biggest challenges faced by AM machine manufacturers and service providers was to justify the transition from high-volume traditional manufacturing to additive processes and demonstrate financial and technological feasibility for adoption. Now, with several additive processes and a variety of materials, there are demonstrable use-cases showcasing significant drop in manufacturing lead time, part weight, along with parts with higher performance. The technology, hence, has become increasingly popular in the aerospace, healthcare, oil & gas and other engineering applications.

Understanding and overcoming constraints

Due to design and manufacturing constraints associated with conventional manufacturing, most of the engineering components consist of several internal parts that are assembled to create a functional object. The process is laborious, often requires multiple fasteners, welds and the like, for final assembly, which eventually increases the cost of production and offers higher chances of failure. Also, the effort of maintaining stock in the warehouse for each of these parts, anticipating failure, is another challenge. Hence, in large and critical assemblies, parts consolidation becomes a great alternative where multiple parts are merged in the CAD model before manufacturing with a suitable AM process. Here, the designers also get the freedom to make changes to enhance performance without compromising on functionality. Since the number of parts is intentionally reduced, the need for maintaining an inventory, anticipating failure, is significantly reduced (Figure 2).

Although parts consolidation reduces the number of parts in an assembly, it is impossible for all the assemblies to be additively consolidated. Hence, continuous maintenance of spares with logistical readiness is crucial. To ensure seamless production, companies usually stockpile large spare part inventories, ensuring a backup in case of an unexpected failure or downtime. Although some may be used in their lifecycle, most spares end up taking up space for years to come. However, once out of production, many of these parts become fully obsolete.

To address this challenge, digital inventories are now slowly replacing traditional warehouses by creating or identifying an on-demand production facility called micro-factories, located in close proximity of the need. With the decentralised production of spare parts, the micro factories offer the companies the benefit to print only the required number of spares with quick turnaround time and explore a variety of materials and processes that best suit the requirement. Besides, the complexity that comes with managing an inventory, transportation and the like is completely eliminated.

Inventory for on-demand supply

Digital inventories enable a more transparent, collaborative and effective supply chain. For example, few legacy parts that do not have a history of drawings or model pose a significant challenge during overhauls, especially for the oil and gas, maritime and heavy engineering industries where these legacy parts are most common.

This places tremendous pressure on companies delivering high-value equipment. Hence, most companies use a reverse engineering approach where the parts are first CT scanned to capture the geometrical features, the data is then translated into a CAD file, mechanical properties associated with the part are assigned to model and the file is finally converted to a digital file suitable for 3D Printing. This is followed by storage in digital inventory for printing on-demand. The AM technology here not only supports part replication but also improvements in design, mechanical properties (if applicable) and performance. Furthermore, these parts can be printed at a centre closest to the customer, eliminating downtime with reduced time-to-market while extending customer satisfaction.

Effective AM approaches for reduced complexity

Critical parts that operate in harsh environments, such as turbine blades, are often subjected to wear and tear during operations, leading to reduced service life. Since these key components are high-priced, restoring these parts with a suitable process is crucial to reinsert them into function as compared to remanufacturing. Besides, restoration and repair prepare end-of-life products to return to as-new condition before entering the subsequent lifecycle. AM processes such as Direct Energy Deposition (DED), cold spray and Powder Bed Fusion (PBF) are increasingly becoming popular in this area and have proven to be an effective approach for adoption.

The goal behind restoration and the complexity of the part fundamentally dictates the choice of the AM process. For example, parts which are experiencing geometrical distortion, such as a chipping, can be restored by using principles of reverse engineering and directly depositing the material (DED process) in the position of the broken part layer by layer, thus returning the products to as-new condition (Figure 3). Although the process appears straight forward, herculean tasks are involved before the part is repaired with AM processes. However, the ability to quickly repair and restore critical functional parts targeting the damaged regions using AM has led to reduced overhauls and has addressed challenges in manufacturing and supply chain.

Evaluate, evolve, influence

Challenges such as establishing new best practices, intellectual property security, material-process-machine qualification and training come along with the adoption of the AM technology. Despite the challenges, AM is a promising part of the digital movement, bringing early wins into product design, manufacturing and supply chain operations. Faster prototyping cycles give companies the leverage to create, test and evaluate a variety of designs before finalising the design and eventually manufacturing in shorter amounts of time. Besides, in an increasingly digitised and integrated world, AM is evolving with significant additions in materials by way of plastics, metals, ceramics, composites and advanced processes for printing. Design for Additive Manufacturing (DfAM) has empowered engineers to create functional geometries for better, lighter and more complex & consolidated parts with enhanced performance. All of these, and with the ability to print the parts on-demand from a digital inventory in a micro factory located in close proximity to the source of need within competitive timeframes, there is a potential shift in the value chains, opening up opportunities to rethink partnerships, production sites and the use of 3D Printing to complement conventional manufacturing. The impact of AM clearly goes far beyond just manufacturing.

Image Gallery

  • Figure 1: Hydraulic manifold with 42% improvement in performance and 79% reduction in weight

  • Figure 1: Hydraulic manifold with 42% improvement in performance and 79% reduction in weight

  • Figure 2: Rectangular wave guide with 103 parts consolidated to 1 part along with 6% improvement in performance

  • Figure 2: Rectangular wave guide with 103 parts consolidated to 1 part along with 6% improvement in performance

  • Figure 3: Damaged and reconstructed tip

  • Rajendra Velagapudi

    Senior Vice President & Global Head – Manufacturing Operations


  • Priyanka Nadig

    Senior Technology Lead – Additive Manufacturing


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