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Aerospace OEM Takes On Challenges of 3D Metal Printing

Eaton sees transformation as difficult but very worthwhile.

The Boeing 787 aircraft flies with two 3D-printed metal parts. There is a fuel nozzle made by a century-old, $120-billion-a-year industrial giant, and a galley fitting made by a 140-person firm based in Norway, not exactly the traditional epicenter of aerospace innovation.

The world of 3D aerospace metal is going to look very interesting in its composition as well as its products. Generally, aerospace manufacturers, both large and small, are eager to get going.

At $20 billion a year in revenue, Eaton is somewhere in between 787 3D suppliers GE and Norsk Titanium. The firm’s aerospace group is investing aggressively in additive manufacturing of both polymer and metal parts. Director of Aerospace Additive Manufacturing Mike York sees additive capabilities as a strong competitive advantage and predicts Eaton will launch its first additive manufactured aerospace parts by the end of 2019. In five to ten years, a significant portion of the Eaton portfolio will be made through the additive process.

But York acknowledges there are substantial hurdles to overcome in 3D metal printing.

One major one hurdle is defining precisely the characteristics of additive metals produced, which are partly a function of the additive process used and the specific settings on each additive machine. York says re-melting and re-solidifying metals makes each additive machine a bit like its own foundry. Eaton must know all the characteristics of the metals it will produce, including most importantly strength and fatigue life. York cautions that there are as yet no standard reference books or databases that provide the information. “This is all new.”

Another hurdle can be altering the design instincts and work processes in aerospace firms that are, due to the overriding safety requirement, inherently conservative. The methods used to get a large organization to shift its thinking to exploit the value of additive will be crucial. For, in addition to design teams, Eaton’s quality and supply chain must also realign their thinking. York stresses this necessity by telling his colleagues, “an opportunity of a lifetime must be seized during the lifetime of the opportunity.” And senior staff must begin seizing it before the way forward is entirely clear “We can’t wait for all the questions to be answered.”

Certification of safety-critical 3D metal parts will also impose formidable challenges. “There’s no defined playbook for certifying additive flight hardware,” York notes. He says Eaton will have to work with incomplete certification standards that have been developed by regulators, and combine these with Eaton’s our own understanding of additive technologies and control to build an approach to certification.

Finally, Eaton must develop an economically workable strategy for ramping up production of additive parts from their limited initial volumes to full-scale commercial volumes. This is complicated by the fact that metal additive technologies are maturing so fast that much better methods can arrive long before high-volume production is attained. In each case, managers must weigh the benefits of using the latest technology against the costs of re-certifying and re-qualifying the part.

Nevertheless, York has no doubts that this journey, with all its difficult choices, is worth it. He says there are simply too many potential gains, in reduced cost and in better part performance, available with additive manufacturing.

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