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Sigma Labs Chief Discusses 3D Printing and Aerospace

By SME Media Staff

John Rice is president, CEO, and director of Sigma Labs Inc. The company is a provider of software to the commercial 3D printing industry.

Rice answered questions from SME Media about how the aerospace industry has embraced additive manufacturing.

He has run a variety of companies in diverse business sectors including design and manufacture of high-end jet engine test equipment for the U.S. Air Force as well as chaff dispensers for F16s, software for Naval warfare modeling exercises, software systems for controlling warehouse distribution systems, development of medical radio-isotopes, and cancer detection tomographic devices.

The interview was conducted by email. The answers were lightly edited. 

SME Media: How has aerospace bolstered 3D printing?

John Rice: Aerospace manufacturing is continually seeking to improve design, reduce weight, cut cost, advance quality of parts, and explore new materials.  Aerospace has been an aggressive leader in finding ways to take advantage of 3D printing in composites, plastics, and metals.

One aircraft assembler targets a ‘40-40’ rule in determining whether to use 3D printing to source parts: There must be a 40 percent weight reduction and 40 percent manufacturing cost reduction.

Another, GE, announced in 2018 that by using 3D printing to integrate subassemblies of multiple parts into single 3D manufactured parts that it had reduced the number of components in its turboprop engines manufactured in the Czech Republic by approximately 35 percent.

A third, Airbus, appears to be the largest user of 3D printed metal parts. A fourth, SpaceX, is reportedly using 3D printing for its small lot production of rocket components.

 The aerospace industry’s aggressive and creative development adoption off 3D in multiple materials, applications, and production methods has transferred much of its knowledge to other industries including medial implements, power generation, and niche automotive applications.

SME Media: What progress has taken place in the past five years in terms of aerospace and 3D printing?

John Rice: 3D technology in aerospace has advanced in several key ways over the past few years in terms of the hardware, software and materials – primarily in additive manufacturing of composites and metal products.

Use of composites and plastics to build parts continues to grow without significant headwinds. Working with OEMs, aerospace has encouraged the introduction of laser powder bed equipment mounted with multiple lasers. This change increased the production capacity of single machines by up to 400 percent and thus reduced capital cost as a percentage of manufacturing revenue.

Inconsistent quality of metal additive-manufactured parts has restrained the growth of high-volume 3D metal parts production for aerospace. To overcome this problem at scale, GE developed costly reverse engineering procedures that included 100 percent inspection of 100 percent of its fuel nozzles relying on CT and other post-process inspections to reverse calibrate machines and over time significantly raise quality yields.

Few companies are willing and able to carry the costs and inefficiency of such an exhaustive after-manufacture process. New technologies are emerging to solve this problem faster, simpler, less costly, and less risky of shipping flawed parts.

The most promising solution is to inspect and cure quality inconsistencies in real-time while parts are actually being formed.

At Sigma Labs, we pioneered the shift to real-time quality assurance during the manufacturing process by using artificial intelligence to interpret thermal data to provide alerts of precursors of quality anomalies along with real-time solutions. This solution mitigates emerging quality problems, saves the manufactured parts, and increases the quality of the parts while dramatically increasing efficiency.

SME Media: Over the past five years, a lot more metals have become available for 3D printing. How has that helped aerospace adopt 3D printing?

John Rice: By defining advanced requirements and creating demand, aerospace engineers have led the way in fostering the development of specialty metals that meet stipulated qualities for weight, fatigue, tensile strength and other qualities.

The ability to custom design both the material and the parts and to build the metal and the part in a single process sets 3D printing apart from our classical metal production and machine shop workflow.

SME Media: What advances may take place for additive manufacturing in the aerospace area in the next five years?

John Rice: We anticipate that additive manufacturing will enable further advances in the design space. Engineers will be able to find disruptive new designs for mechanical systems that provide optimum functionality using bionic designs and capitalize on the properties of metals like titanium.

We also think that we will see advances in the way supply chains for manufacturing in the aerospace industry will work. 3D printing can simplify and truncate the supply chain. For instance, a company may elect to build large 3D printing factories closer to the distribution point or to design a supply chain that mimics the population distribution layout of a country and have 3D metal Internet-of-Things substations available on standby to serve markets’ demands.

Further, traditionally segmented links along the supply chain could be eliminated entirely, as a 3D printing machine needs only metal powder to build the part required when the part is required.

SME Media: Is there anything you’d like to add?

John Rice: To clarify, currently 3D printing has not yet been widely adopted to the scale of aerospace’s forecast future demand much less other industries due to the inability to ensure consistent quality from every machine in every production run.

Right now, between 20 percent and 70 percent of a typical early run must be discarded due to quality flaws. Even the most reliable, meticulously programmed machines are prone to creating flaws during production phase which results in both a very expensive inspection process and a lot of waste.

To date, there are software platforms that use optical solutions to identify flaws during the production phase. This is not particularly helpful as a corrective because once you can actually see a flaw, it’s too late.

Other solutions are emerging. Sigma Labs’ PrintRite3D software conducts real-time analyses of thermal data from the meltpool and recognizes the precursors of errors to provide an analysis of what the problem is and how to mitigate it, before it happens. When it detects precursors beginning to form a quality anomaly it alerts the operator and enables a quality-saving intervention.

With enabling technology like this, aerospace will indeed be able to leverage all of the advantages of 3D metal printing while avoiding its drawbacks.

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