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Creating an Easier Qualification Path for 3D Printing

Stratasys and NCAMP have developed a new public domain database to simplify qualification of 3D printed parts for MROs and suppliers.

Stratasys is hoping to make qualification of 3D printed parts for aerospace easier and more cost-effective with a new public domain database to help manufacturers prove out equivalency and regulatory compliance. Designed with the National Center for Advanced Materials Performance (NCAMP) and oversight from the FAA, the database opens the door for industry-wide standards for additive manufacturing (AM) consistency and repeatability. 

According to Scott Sevcik, VP of manufacturing solutions at Stratasys, the wide variety of options and flexibility within AM has traditionally made qualification challenging—particularly when it comes to maturity and repeatability. “Until you have that level of repeatability, it’s very challenging for a certifier to look at a technology and trust it,” he says. To address that challenge, Stratasys started working with aerospace manufacturers and certification authorities to “foster a collective understanding of core requirements necessary for a qualification path for AM parts.”

In 2016, the company began developing a database featuring process and materials specifications, test data and analysis that could be a universal guide to qualification procedures—around the same time the FAA asked NCAMP to do the same based on its previous work creating databases of this type for composites.

“We needed to find a way to begin the process of really developing standards that can be leveraged. Until there are standards within the industry, there is a very significant barrier to adoption,” explains Sevcik.

Stratasys and NCAMP joined forces in 2017 to complete all the testing, statistical analysis and data reporting required for creating the database, which is based on a qualification process using Stratasys’ Fortus 900 3D printer and ULTEM 9085 resin. According to Chris Holshouser, technical director of advanced manufacturing development for the National Institute for Aviation Research—which is home to NCAMP—the choice of an FDM process using ULTEM 9085 was driven by its types of application and the broad level of adoption and familiarity within the industry.

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Holshouser says the database provides the industry a foundation for things such as ordering material, calibrating machines and operating them with a high chance of producing quality parts. “Without that commonality and that consistent stepping off point, there’s a lot of variability and user influence that can go into driving a very different outcome with the same printer,” he explains.

In addition to helping with consistent outcomes, Holshouser and Sevcik say the database will make the process simpler for the industry and give everyone from large OEMs to smaller players a more even playing field. “This provides a public qualification, data and processes that can be leveraged by anyone to significantly reduce their investment and uncertainty in their own qualification program,” says Sevcik.

Traditionally, Sevcik says companies within aerospace interested in using AM—such as an MRO looking to replace small, frequently damaged plastic parts in an aircraft cabin—would find the process challenging because they would need to invest millions of dollars in an end-to-end qualification process without the confidence that it would result in a positive outcome. “That’s limited qualification of additive to some very big names with deep pockets to pursue qualification and take on that risk,” he says.

With the free public processes and qualification data available in the new database, Sevcik says companies looking to certify parts in-house can instead make a smaller investment in Stratasys equipment and material, run a small set of tests and more easily show that they can perform equivalency to the published data—rather than having to generate an entire qualification database themselves. According to Holshouser, testing to prove equivalency using the database can reduce the process from approximately eight months down to around 20 days.

Sevcik says an MRO could also use the database by leveraging the standard within the supply chain. “Rather than installing the equipment and running that qualification program, they can go to a supplier and say, ‘We are producing parts against this specification. We need you to show compliance and your equivalency,’ and then that data flows up to the certification authority,” he explains.

Now that this first database has been created, Sevcik says Stratasys is branching out to other standards organizations to further leverage process standards throughout the industry. The company is working with SAE International to develop a similar database for the AMS7100 fused filament fabrication process, which is currently in the review phase. Meanwhile, Holshouser says NCAMP will be looking to more complex and higher-reinforced AM materials, which will increase the criticality of parts companies can pursue.

“It’s really about creating a universal procedure that is knocking down a huge barrier to adoption that we’ve kind of been stuck with and moving from rapid prototyping into true advanced manufacturing,” says Holshouser.

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