Military history buffs take note: the United States Army is replacing its venerated Bell OH-58 Kiowa Warrior with a next-generation helicopter that promises to deliver “lethal effects” on the battlefield. This Future Attack Reconnaissance Aircraft (FARA) is a vital component of the military’s Future Vertical Lift (FVL) program, which aims to “improve vertical lift dominance by improving performance and optimizing affordability, lifecycle management, interoperability and supportability.” The new FARA model is known as the “knife-fighter.”
As with most such spending initiatives, the defense department sent a request for proposal to various military contractors as part of the procurement process. Five years later, two are left standing—Sikorsky Aircraft, now part of Lockheed Martin, and Fort Worth, Texas-based aerospace manufacturer Bell Textron.
Justin Rivera is an engineer on Bell’s FARA build team. He also leads an enterprise-wide team that strategizes on the implementation and adoption of “all things additive,” a role he’s held since 2020. For security and competitive reasons, Rivera won’t share too many details about the design of the Bell 360 Invictus or when we might see its maiden voyage, except to say that production of the winning aircraft could begin somewhere in the 2030 timeframe.
He’ll also point out that the Invictus complements another aircraft within the FVL program—the Bell V-280 Valor—that took its first test flight in 2017. According to its overview page on the manufacturer’s website, the tiltrotor V-280 is the only FVL weapons system with “the flight-proven agility, speed, range and endurance for the Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA) mission.”
“The two aircraft serve different missions, and together, fulfill one of the Army’s many strategic goals,” Rivera adds.
Regardless of who wins the FARA contest, the Invictus (Latin for invincible) is an extremely cool helicopter. It boasts a high-performance rotor system that propels the craft to speeds greater than 200 knots (230 mph). It has retractable weapons (including a 20-mm cannon) for reduced drag during flight, lift-sharing wings to suppress blade stall, a tandem cockpit that maximizes the field of view for both the pilot and copilot, and uses Bell’s proven fly-by-wire flight controls.
This article is not about helicopters and defense department programs, however. It’s about additive manufacturing (AM) and how Rivera leverages the technology in his work. He’s been doing so since his college days. While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Rivera co-founded and served as president of the school’s Formula SAE Team, a competition that requires students to design and fabricate a racecar from scratch in nine months.
It was here that he first began to learn the power of 3D printing. “During my freshman year, a friend introduced me to Formula SAE,” Rivera says. “Unfortunately, the team fell apart that same semester and basically ceased to exist. But after completing a co-op program with Emerson Process Management in early 2009, I returned to Texas Tech and, by that fall, had reestablished Red Raider Racing as an official organization of the school.”
The experience taught him many lessons, not the least of which is the importance of networking and budgeting. Happily, those two business skills came together while Rivera was attempting to launch Formula SAE. “We had maybe five hundred bucks to work with, so I wrote a letter to Ed Whitacre Jr., a Texas Tech alumni who was serving as the interim CEO of General Motors. He sent us a check for five grand.”
That funding might not have earned the team a place in the winner’s circle, but Rivera’s efforts were enough to launch a team that continues to this day—since 2011, Texas Tech has competed in two world and three local competitions. The team’s endurance and success also are a source of pride for Rivera: “Formula SAE has been more rewarding than any other project I have been a part of,” he states on his LinkedIn page.
Racing also gave Rivera and his teammates valuable, real-world experience, which is the program’s real purpose. For instance, while volunteering with Formula SAE in Germany, Rivera was exposed to the widespread uses of composites and 3D printing, knowledge that he has applied to his engineering career with Bell.
One example of this is Rivera’s participation on the Joint Defense Manufacturing Technology Panel (JDMTP) Composites Sub-Panel, as well as his leadership of the “all-things additive” team. In both instances, he aims to promote these technologies throughout Bell, for the betterment of all.
“It’s not a formal team,” he says. “It’s been more of an organic, grassroots kind of thing that began soon after I started at Bell, when I was looking to apply what I’d learned during Formula SAE. That effort began with the V-22 Osprey (tiltrotor aircraft). I wanted to know more about the manufacturing side of the program, so found myself a year later in the research and development lab in Fort Worth. I stayed there for almost ten years.”
Rivera explains that he learned everything he could about the 3D printing of plastics and metals, as well as the different applications of each. This gave him the background needed to succeed in his current position, but also showed him that Bell had “all these different additive efforts going on, and it’d be really great if we could all be on the same page. There were too many silos.”
To address this problem, Rivera created an internal forum several years ago. Participants meet monthly and share ideas on ways to streamline and standardize AM use at Bell. Vendors also are invited to discuss the latest and greatest in material development, equipment improvements, software advancements and other 3D-printing topics that might help Rivera and other AM users at Bell. In addition, Bell began soliciting outside funding to leverage such technologies where they make sense.
How does all this AM harmonization fit into his current full-time role on the FARA build team? That’s a question that anyone with extensive experience with 3D printing can answer. Says Rivera, “When you’re in the prototype phase of an aircraft—or any complex electromechanical assembly, for that matter—the ability to quickly iterate on a problematic area is invaluable. There’s nothing like having a physical part you can touch and feel. You’re better able to understand its function, how to install it, and where you can improve the design of it or adjoining components.”
Relying on a service bureau for these prototypes not only adds cost and lead time to a project but also reduces the design freedom you get from having printers onsite. “It’s a very useful tool,” Rivera adds.
It’s so useful that Bell has more than 500 3D-printed production parts across its product line. Applications include but are not limited to environmental-control systems, rotor-blade components and airframe fairings. All began as a 3D-printed prototype in one of the company’s many programs and departments, and all have played a key role in terms of designing, building and testing aircraft.
Many challenges remain. At the top of the list are the obstacles facing airworthiness certification of 3D-printed parts, including various industry standards and quality policies that Rivera and other teams are navigating, any of which can pose a barrier in achieving full adoption. “We work very closely with our certification experts and quality teams to ensure we’re leveraging our tools to the best of our abilities while prioritizing safety, performance and cost,” he says.
Rivera also looks forward to being the catalyst between Bell’s design and manufacturing departments as new programs come to fruition. “There are a lot of exciting projects going on right now, everything from our recent FLRAA win with the Bell V-280 Valor to the Invictus and its ongoing FARA competition, which I’m confident we will win,” he says. “Finally, we’re working on several high-speed vertical takeoff and landing concepts that will be revolutionary. I expect that both polymer and metal AM will play an increasingly significant role in these and other programs over the next five to 10 years as we see a shift in the standardization of materials and machine parameters. All will help to reduce the barriers of aerospace adoption.”
That covers fast cars and fast helicopters. So where do fast bikes enter into this discussion? When not working on next-generation fighting aircraft for one of the country’s leading aerospace manufacturers, Rivera cruises the Lone Star state on a Ducati 848 motorcycle, hopefully not at the vehicle’s top speed of 159 mph. And sometimes, he takes his other pair of wheels—the pedaling kind—to Tucson, Az., where residents don their patience pants for the 109-mile Tour de Tucson and its annual influx of 9,000-some bicyclists. No 3D-printed parts here, at least not yet. Ride safe, Justin. The AM industry needs you.