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3D Printer Giant and AM Pioneer Awarded Contract to Produce F-35 Fighter Jet Parts
3D Systems Corp., a major provider of 3D printers, print materials, and on-demand custom parts services, recently expanded its reach into the aerospace and defense markets with a $3 million award from the U.S. Air Force to build components for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jet. The company's Paramount advanced manufacturing team, acquired by 3D Systems last April, offers AS9100C and ISO 9001:2008 certifications and was chosen on competitive merit by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory's scientific and technology experts after demonstrating the required technology and manufacturing readiness to transition components from qualification into production.
The award will transition specially engineered materials and the company's Selective Laser Sintering (SLS) technology to the production of various components in the F-35 and other weapons systems to improve affordability and sustainability. According to the company, the contract represents 3D Systems' commitment to research, development, and commercialization of rapid manufacturing solutions for aerospace and defense while benefiting all industries, particularly aerospace and motorsports applications, where high strength-to-weight, high temperature, and electrically conductive thermoplastics are critical factors to the design and manufacturing process.
A $2.64 billion company headquartered in Rock Hill, S.C., 3D Systems (www.3dsystems.com) produces personal, professional, and production 3D printers ranging in price from $1,300 desktop printers to $1 million printers able to make parts for supersonic jets. The company serves various markets, including medical, transportation, energy, consumer products, recreation, and education, and is currently concentrating its focus on aerospace, defense, and direct manufacturing. With its recent acquisition of Paramount Industries, which is also ITAR registered, 3D Systems plans on growing its on-demand direct manufacturing services.
Design-2-Part Magazine recently spoke with 3D Systems President and CEO Abe Reichental to discuss the company's latest development to produce components for the U.S. Air Force's F-35 fighter jets.
D2P: Why is the SLS technology well suited for this application?
Abe Reichental: It offers a few key benefits at the heart of the Air Force objectives. First is weight reduction, which is central to fuel efficiency and maneuverability of fighter jets. Second is high impact durability. Third is thermal resistance and conductivity, and fourth is the opportunity to combine multiple parts into a unified assembly, therefore eliminating manual and expensive assembly and fabrication steps. And finally, the opportunity to create conformal structures that fit into the odd shape of the fighter jets' fuselage.
D2P: How will the components improve sustainability and affordability of the F-35 and other weapon systems?
AR: By definition, any kind of 3D printing or additive manufacturing is a process that has little to no waste. Its processes can be accomplished Just In Time, in small quantities, and in large quantities. It doesn't require smoke stacks or significant transportation costs, so you get carbon footprint reduction, you get energy savings, and you get total material usage, all of which are extremely important to sustainability. But most importantly, because of the high impact durability and light weight, it allows aerospace designers to create much more fuel-efficient aircraft, which is at the heart of 3D printing.
D2P: How significant a step is this award with 3D Systems reaching out to the aerospace and defense industries?
AR: It's in keeping with our heritage and progress if you look at our evolution with the evolution of aerospace and defense. The F-18 that has been in service for a couple of decades now has about 90 parts that are printed on SLS systems. For the F-35, there are some 900 parts that have been qualified for 3D printing. And the purpose of the Air Force award that we just got is to transition the technology to what they call "manufacturing readiness." It is an important next step to begin transitioning some of these parts that have already been qualified to manufacturing readiness. So it's a big step in the evolution of the technology in how it is being factored into future aerospace designs. Manufacturing readiness means you develop the 3D printing platform and the material to basically comply with all of the specifications and industrial grade readiness so that they could actually be manufactured and deployed on board an F-35.
D2P: Can you discuss the high temperature and electrically conductive thermoplastics that are critical factors to the design and manufacturing process of these parts?
AR: Yes, it's very important for the Air Force and all of the subcontractors that the actual printed parts that come off the SLS printers will be able to withstand the temperatures that are experienced in use, and that they have the desired conductivity so they can conduct and discharge any static electricity.
D2P: What SLS printer is being used for this application, and how is the SLS technology beneficial for such an application as compared to the competition?
AR: The SLS system that will be used for this application is part of this Air Force Award that will allow us to develop and refine the correct high-temperature resistance. So it will be a tailor-made special purpose system under development as part of this specific award and it will be tailor made using specific material that would comply with both the high temperature and conductivity requirements to make it manufacturing ready. So this is all part of this project and, at the conclusion of this phase, we will basically be able to deliver a new hybrid manufacturing system that will be tailor made for this application.
D2P: Why did the Air Force come to you for this, instead of the competition?
AR: I think they came to us because we have a long and reputable track record for being able to deliver manufacture-grade, turnkey systems. We have done it successfully for the F-18, and we have done it successfully for a variety of medical device and automotive applications. And what we have developed over time, internally, as the leader and pioneer in additive manufacturing, together with some of our recently acquired capabilities with Paramount Industries, stood out for the Air Force as a credible combination of know-how, technology, and demonstrated abilities, and that set us apart from other competitors.
D2P: How do you envision future projects with the Air Force?
AR: We expect that we will be doing more with the Air Force and more with other branches with the Department of Defense because we believe that 3D printing and additive manufacturing is critical to frontline deployment projects at various branches of the armed forces. We also believe it is critical to defense and national interest as it pertains to superior airworthy vehicles and other types of robotics and artificial intelligence embedded in military vehicles and weapons systems. We believe that DoD, through its various initiatives, is very mindful of 3D printing and it will be used in their future initiatives.
D2P: How will the success of this project benefit all industries?
AR: There are unforeseen, "trickle down" benefits from projects like this that push technology forward into building new industrial capabilities. So once you can put high-temp conductive material on board a fighter jet, you can put it on board many other civilian and military vehicles. Once you do that, you may be able to generate new classes of consumer electronics and durable goods. There are always very positive and long term trickle down benefits that come with these initiatives, which is why, in part, the U.S. government is being very proactive with allowing companies like us, and others, to move forward in technology development because it has a long trail of benefits.
D2P: How do you see 3D printing taking shape during the next few years?
AR: I believe 3D printing is going to impact everything as we know it. It's going to impact how we create, how we communicate, how we educate, how we manufacture. And as The Economist recently mentioned, I think that 3D printing, robotics, sensing, and artificial intelligence will be technologies that will change manufacturing as we know it for the next decade. I feel really fortunate to be at the epicenter of all these advancements and it's an awesome responsibility to do it right. And 3D Systems intends to do it right and make the contribution to society and to the global economy that will come out of this technology.
D2P: How do you see 3D Systems remaining on the leading edge of this technology?
AR: Through a combination of technology advancement and business model innovation, and we have been really good at both. We increased our technology platform, basically tripled our IP in technology engine capabilities over the last few years, and we've also been very acquisitive, so that if we can't develop internally, we acquire externally. In the process, we have become a real transformative, innovative, and impactful force because we are delivering end-to-end solutions and capabilities. And as long as we continue to remain as innovative on the technology and the business model, I believe we will maintain healthy leadership advantage and continue to shape and lead the future applications of our technology.
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