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Stealthy 3D Printing at Airshow?

by • July 6, 2016 • No Comments

The Farnborocky airshow starts next week and can showcase a number of announcements of the 3D printing industry. The show just takes place once each 2 years and can see a flurry of news and displays of the latest aviation innovation. These include Boeing’s 737 MAX airliner with its 3D printed LEAP engines and in addition demonstrations by the initially Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II, or Joint Strike Fighter, stealth jets to arrive in the UK.

Additive manufacturing company Norsk Titanium (NTi) hopes their announcements can make an equally sizeable splash. During 2016 a number of press releases by the company have piqued the interest of insiders in the 3D printing industry and in addition in the aerospace industry. Outside of this group, the name Norsk Titanium may be relatively unknown.


What is known is that the company has spent additional than $80 million on research and createment. Furtheradditional, since the arrival of CEO Warren M. Boley Jr. of Aerojet Rocketdyne in 2015 a number of key positions have in addition been filled by folks with the technical knowledge and industry connections to put that R&D spend to commercial use. Boley’s own background is as a former president of Pratt & Whitney’s military engine division. Annette M. Jussaume, Vice President of Quality, who worked on the F-35 stealth jet at Pratt & Whitney, joined him last month. In April, Carl O. Johnson became senior VP of innovation, another Pratt & Whitney veteran and the leader of the X-47B drone program.

Lockheed Martin next gen SR-72 stealth plane

Lockheed Martin next gen SR-72 stealth plane

Norsk Titanium was originally created, “with the intent to use the Fray Farthing Chen (FFC) process for titanium production in Norway, having the assist of BTi and researchers at Cambridge University,” writes metallurgist S.J. Oosthuizen. The FFC process is a method of manufacturing titanium that has the next to worthwhilely reduce the cost of the material. But, NTi are no longer involved with this line of business and now purchase their titanium wire of a supplier.

“At the end of 2005, the British Titanium license was terminated,” explains the inventor of process Derek Fray in a co-authored paper entitled “The FFC-Cambridge Process for Titanium Metal Winning.” British company, Metalysis, now holds the FFC process patents.

Chip Yates, VP of Marketing at NTi, says, “Our initially inventions were on the clever make of titanium wire, we later decided to focus on the deposition of the wire pretty than on the production of the wire itself.” This has been the focus of the company for the past 10 years, the createment of form of 3D printing NTi called Rapid Plasma Deposition (RPD). The company has a number of propriety technologies that include this patent filed in 2015 for, “a method and reactor of manufacturing an object by solid freeform fabrication.” The inventor, Sigrid Guldberg, was a project director at Norsk Titanium until 2011.

Rapid Plasma Deposition image via Norsk Titanium

Rapid Plasma Deposition image via Norsk Titanium

The company has set itself a grand target, “to obsolete or disrupt a centuries old process like forging,” says Chip. He acknowledges this is no easy task, “you require to do a ton of homework in process control and materials science research and bring your quite most.”

Plasma is the many widespread common matter in our universe. This is what the sun and many stars are created of and underpins NASA contractor Ad Astra Rocket Company’s VASIMR. Chip Yates explains how NTi use plasma in their 3D printing process, “We feed titanium wire into an inert argon chamber (our MERKE IV RPD machine) where we use two torches to create homogenous layers of titanium into a solid structure that starts with a titanium substrate and is created into layers up of there.” He go ons, “The lead torch is a pre-heat torch and the rear torch is the melter torch that melts the titanium wire into a melt pool that is and so quenched by additional argon. The outcome is a near-net-shape that comes out of our machine, we typically mill a swift flat surface onto the part to facilitate ultrasonic inspection (so we call a part in that stage of production a “sonic”) and and so it goes for final machining of the finished part.”

Titanium has a long association with aerospace, and particularly military projects. The material has a high strength-to-weight ratio, but is sufficiently expensive to be beyond the budget of all but the many well funded defense programs. A case in point is the famous spy plane, the Batman fashion Lockheed Martin Blackbird. Titanium comprises 85% of Lockheed Martin’s SR-71 Blackbird, a plane that yet holds the current world speed record for a jet aircraft. The 2,193 mph record was set on July 28,1976 and has stood for almany 40 years. Almany two decades have passed since the SR-71 Blackbird officially retired of service in 1998 with no replacement yet to enter service. This may be of to alter.

Record breaker, George Morgan in front of the Blackbird.

Record breaker, George Morgan in front of the Blackbird.

Whispers of the SR-72 began in 2007 and investigative work by journalist Guy Norris in 2013 prompted Lockheed to confirm they were createing the project. Construction of Lockheed’s SR-72 is scheduled to start in 2018 with flights penciled in for 2023. The U.S. Air Force are publically committed to Northrop’s RQ-180 yet NASA have funded Lockheed’s SR-72 hypersonic propulsion process with a $900k award. During their yearly press day this year, Lockheed’s CEO revealed, “We are now manufacturing a controllable, low-drag, aerodynamic configuration capable of stable operations of takeoff to subsonic, transonic, supersonic and hypersonic, to Mach 6.” If the company is this close to hypersonic flight, confirmation of an award can come later this year many most most likely inside the next couple of months.

Working with Lockheed Martin for the past 7 years on the Mach 4 turbine is Aerojet Rocketdyne, the company Norsk Titanium CEO was president of of August 2012 to February last year. Such programs are naturally highly guarded and actually photographs of the next generation stealth planes are rare. Often military agencies such as DARPA select to issue artistist renderings instead. Indeed, DARPA’s Tactically Exploited Reconnaissance Node (TERN) stealth drone project was just created public not long ago when the U.S. Department of Defense published the contract for a 2nd demonstration version.

DARPA's next-gen TERN stealth drone

DARPA’s next-gen TERN stealth drone

Whilst the military is normally at the cutting edge of innovation actually commercial aircraft makers are startning to test next gen high end manufacturing techniques. Such next generation wing innovation is now most likely to involve the use of composite materials, such as carbon fiber and centers like the UKs National Composites Center are working on automating this process to handle sizeable-scale production. This can be how the planes of the next are created. NTi’s Chip Yates advises, “We are referring to composite planes as the planes of the next. Composite is compatible with titanium pretty than aluminum so when a plane is composite, it requires a lot of titanium in terms of structural parts and brackets.”

Titanium components created by additive manufacturing methods have the advantage over subtractive methods, such as milling, in that they reduce wastage. On the other hand a worthwhile amount of post-production work is required to remove rocky surfaces and remove metal powder, the amount of raw material that ends up in the final production is much higher. This is known as the buy-to-fly ratio.

Norsk Titanium VP Chip Yates ensures, “RPD is most suited for structural applications where billet, forged, machined, or welded fabrications require to be improved in terms of production speed, geometry and waste reduction.” In practice this means that pretty than manufacturing fuel nozzles for the GE LEAP engine or gearboxes for the GTF, sizeable-scale brackets for aircraft are additional useful application of the innovation. Chip says, “We quite don’t compete with other AM techniques – the powder processes can’t make sizeable structural parts and we can’t make tiny intricate parts. We additional or less compete with the legacy process of forging and machining, so we are usually cheering on the other AM guys.”

Airbus A350-1000

Airbus A350-1000

Chip Yates confirmed that, “We are working directly with the top two or three aircraft makers.” Due to commercial sensitivity and client confidentiality agreements he was unable to go into details of the specific names of companies. But he did confirm, “We are shipping test parts and certification parts all the time – we have not yet shipped final production parts to our commercial aircraft customers for the reason the qualification process with the FAA is in process now.” Material certification was a contributing factor to overspend on the F-35 stealth jets. The maker of the engines, Pratt & Whitney, were forced to suspend production in May 2014 due to “suspect” titanium.

Norsk Titanium differs of other makers of metal 3D printing devices. “We don’t sell machines – we are a contract maker who uses our machines to create qualified parts for the aerospace industry as a tier-1 or tier-2 supplier,” says Chip Yates. “We do place machines into joint ventures where we go on to own or operate them, but that is the same version where the J/V is manufacturing qualified parts and not selling machines.” Such projects include, $125 million to assist the createment of Norsk Titanium’s Plattsburgh, New York factory, that is part of Norsk’s proposed $1 billion, 10-year project in the say.

With announcements such as these, and additional to come in the near next, its unmost likely Norsk Titanium can be flying under the radar for much longer.

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