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From Everett to Livermore

Kip Hanson
By Kip Hanson Contributing Editor, SME Media

Tyler LeBrun, Advisor, SME Additive Manufacturing Technical Community, Additive Manufacturing Lead, Sandia National Laboratories

Tyler LeBrun’s LinkedIn page describes his work at Sandia National Laboratories as “all things additive manufacturing (AM) all the time.” It’s a fitting motto, although LeBrun could just as easily have said “all things aerospace,” or even “all things materials.” That’s because this graduate of Berkeley and Southern California universities has worked for some of the leading aerospace firms in the world—namely, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Aerojet Rocketdyne—and somewhere in between, earned his doctorate in materials engineering from Osaka University in Japan.

LeBrun is also involved in numerous standards organizations, among them the ASTM Committee F42 on Additive Manufacturing Technologies, the International Organization for Standardization Technical Committee (ISO/TC)-261 on Additive Manufacturing, SAE International’s Aerospace Materials Specification group, and SME’s Additive Manufacturing Technical Community. Given his passion and 15 years of wide-ranging industry experience, he has brought significant value to each of these companies and groups.

All Things Additive

“I guess you could say that standards are my shtick,” said LeBrun. “Years ago, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) chartered the Society of Automotive Engineers to write standards for additive manufacturing. That’s where I first got involved in this area, because we used those documents most prevalently at Rocketdyne and Blue Origin. I’ve since spent considerable time volunteering with various committees, and am the document sponsor for a handful of industry standards that support binder jetting and laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) in aerospace.”

Tyler LeBrun believes significant investments by government and industry are needed to further the country’s leadership position in additive manufacturing.

This last part brings up another of LeBrun’s favorite topics: binder jet. Although he’s a big fan of LPBF, directed energy deposition (DED), and any other technology that produces metal or polymer parts one layer at a time, it’s binder jet that has a special place in his analytical heart. “Binder jetting is a great tool for producing a lot of the types of parts that we consider good candidates for additive, but at the same time, it’s also very cost effective,” he said. “I’m confident that we’re going to see the automotive industry pick it up because of its productivity advantage over laser powder bed, so it’s something that we don’t want to be caught flat-footed on for standards. And from my side, it fits a sweet spot for much of the work we do here.”

That work includes quite a bit of fundamental research and development within the AM space. “For instance, we have a number of scientists working on things like material characterization, process monitoring, and investigating different technologies across the entire AM spectrum,” said LeBrun.

As an AM lead at Sandia’s facility in Livermore, California, it’s his job to support these efforts and help create strategies for deploying 3D printing equipment in the most productive and cost-effective manner possible. Much of his time is spent transitioning the lab’s decades of research and knowledge of AM into production-ready tools and processes, a large percentage of which has been focused on LPBF; as he sees it, this is where he’s able to add the greatest value to the national labs.

Said LeBrun, “My background has largely been in aerospace, and I have more than a decade’s worth of hands-on experience in leveraging additive manufacturing to produce hardware specifically for space propulsion. That means leveraging the technology to make actual parts, inspect and qualify them, prove that they work, and then use them in the field. So, I’m here to try and help create a standard approach that follows that same path, moving beyond pure research into using additive as a tool for production.”

Tyler LeBrun has a decade of hands-on experience in using additive manufacturing to produce hardware specifically for space propulsion.

Securing a Peaceful World

He’s in good company. Sandia has a 70-year history as an applied science and technology hub for the United States. Its multidisciplinary research activities include everything from advanced computing systems and biomass conversion to “keeping the U.S. nuclear stockpile safe, secure, and effective.” The government-funded agency boasts an operating budget of $3.9 billion, more than 900 buildings across five locations, and a workforce of 14,500, most of whom are full-time employees.

LeBrun has been part of this team since late 2020. Aside from the tasks described earlier, he’s actively involved in defining qualification strategies and methods for the parts, materials, and processes that may support one of the many end-use applications Sandia delivers.

One example of these applications was when Sandia geoscientists used 3D-printed rocks to understand how fracking and carbon dioxide sequestration can lead to earthquakes. Technicians there have also used AM to print electrical circuits in High Operational Tempo (HOT) Shot rockets, eliminating the need for cables. Molds for wind turbine blades, mounts for quantum sensing devices, a lightweight, low-cost telescope—these are just a few of the research projects the Sandia additive team has worked on in recent years, many of them during LeBrun’s tenure.

Rising Waters

The work extends beyond the purely scientific. It also helps the additive community in some very tangible ways. LeBrun explained that much of the research and development at Sandia centers around technologies that are either cost prohibitive or don’t have the guaranteed payoff that industry stakeholders might want to invest in. These high-risk, high-reward activities are often less attractive to organizations that are fiscally conservative, but in the end, produce a rising technological tide that lifts all boats equally.

“Within the next couple of years, we are planning to open a facility that will expand our footprint in research and development into AM,” LeBrun said. “Our goal is to double down on additive and, more broadly, advanced manufacturing, investing the resources and human capital needed to push that frontier even further.”

Sandia and LeBrun’s team also work with other research organizations, including Lawrence Livermore, Los Alamos, and Ames National Laboratories. In December, LeBrun hosted an AM alloy development workshop. Staff members from each of these institutions came together to share notes and compare what they were working on, collaborating on ways to straddle the academic and industrial worlds and hopefully make AM easier for both.

LeBrun explained that, despite its relative maturity and increased popularity for end-use, small-volume part production, AM remains out of reach for many smaller U.S. manufacturers. He noted that developing a competent AM offering is both nontrivial and burdensome for the country’s “Mom and Pop” shops, and even many larger companies. Unfortunately, these are often the businesses that have traditionally supplied parts to original equipment manufacturers (OEM) and their prime suppliers, a situation that—unless remedied—will hamper broader AM adoption.

Complicating matters is a trend toward increased specialization of AM equipment. Unlike a CNC lathe or laser cutter that can machine anything that fits within its axis travels and power constraints, 3D printer manufacturers are making tools that address particular customer needs. Those efforts require them to make specific design choices that determine how their systems operate and therefore limit the number of applications and materials their owners can adopt. This trend is distinctly different than the traditional jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none approach to machine development, and while there’s some merit to specialization, it does make general-purpose adoption more difficult.

Keep it in America

“I attended an America Makes meeting recently that touched on some of these challenges,” LeBrun said. “The level of engineering skills, the learning curve, and the financial resources needed to develop robust AM capabilities can be prohibitive, which is why there needs to be some coalescence around industry standards and standard operating procedures and ways to make the technology more turnkey for these smaller consumers. You shouldn’t need a PhD to 3D print quality parts. That’s just not sustainable.”

It’s the AM integrators, equipment manufacturers, and aerospace OEMs that will need to drive the industry forward, he suggested, although the government has a role to play as well. As an example, he pointed to the Biden administration’s AM Forward initiative, which the White House website describes as a voluntary compact among large manufacturers, supported through several current and proposed federal initiatives, designed to help smaller U.S.-based suppliers increase their use of AM.

“I’m glad to see support from the federal government, at least from a leadership perspective, but significant investment will also be necessary,” said LeBrun. “As we’ve seen, though, that’s something easy to ask for but difficult to receive.”

Difficulty aside, let’s hope this level of government and industry support continues—according to LeBrun, our country’s current AM leadership position depends on it. “As has been the case with many of the high-tech tools in use today, people will find ways to make those tools cheaper but just as effective, undercutting the existing OEMs to the point where they can no longer compete. That will create a race to the bottom, which won’t be good for anyone. We as a nation must find a way to avoid that, because it’s not something you can wrap a tariff or export control around. The only way to stay ahead of an offshoring wave is through broader domestic adoption, and that requires a certain level of championing beyond what we’re currently seeing.”

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