Joule Printing Digital Alloys

Push To Industrialize Additive Manufacturing in Aviation

Lufthansa Technik, Air New Zealand and Boeing all make bigger moves in additive manufacturing as they seek efficiencies.

Additive manufacturing has moved beyond an experimental emerging technology toward industrialization. And the materials used and parts scope are broadening, too.

In roughly the past month:

  • Lufthansa Technik signed a one-year partnership agreement with Swiss-based Oerlikon to establish a repeatable process for additive manufacturing in MRO. They will print components from one site in the U.S. and two in Germany—using the same processes and powder specifications—to gather data on quality. The intent is to share results with industry bodies to facilitate parts certification based on repeatable industrialization.
  • Air New Zealand is teaming with Zenith Tecnica and GE Additive to explore using electron-beam melting to manufacture titanium and other metal parts. They have collaboratively printed prototype metal framing for the airline’s Business Premier cabin.
  • Boeing HorizonX Ventures invested an undisclosed amount in Digital Alloys, which created Joule Printing—a technology that uses commodity metal wire. The system pushes current through the wire tip using joule heating, the same physics used in a toaster, and lays the heated metal instantly on the print bed. This follows Boeing’s investment in Morf3D, another metal-based additive company, and a five-year collaboration with Oerlikon to create standard titanium additive manufacturing processes, launched earlier this year.

In the case of Digital Alloys’ Joule Printing, “you can measure exactly where the metal is being melted,” which is the only technology in the world that can claim that, says company CEO Duncan McCallum. “We know exactly where the voxel, the 3D pixel is, because we’re in contact. We know exactly how much metal is going into it because we have precision-wire feed, and we know exactly how much heat we’re applying because it’s a circuit. And we can measure and control those things very tightly, which lends itself to consistency, repeatability and high quality levels.”

As the industry ramps up additively manufactured parts, it is exactly those things—consistency, repeatability and high quality—that are needed to successfully industrialize.

While Joule Printing would not be suitable for anything requiring intricate details or very small size (think of a golf ball or baseball as a minimum size), the process is suitable for large parts. However, if a part is big or heavy, it would need a frame to hold it steady relative to the print head during the process.

Joule Printing also allows for overhangs, the enabler for hollow parts or tools. McCallum says this is a key design feature because customers are interested in producing parts or tools with channels—for cooling or reducing weight. Regardless of whether additive uses powder or metal, the technology reduces waste.

For hard metals commonly used in aerospace, such as titanium or Inconel, there’s a lot of scrap from machining a block of the hard material. McCallum points to aircraft brackets, which might use 10-20% of a titanium block. That produces scrap and “a lot of time on your CNC machines,” says McCallum, as opposed to make a near-net shape with Joule Printing and then finishing the part. If a part is made from a hard metal that is difficult to cut and “there’s some reasonable amount of scrap, we’re 25-50% cheaper,” says McCallum.

Is it any surprise that additive manufacturing is generating so much interest? 

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