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U.S. Air Force adopts 3D Systems’ Figure 4 DLP platform for aircraft part replacement

It seems the excitement surrounding 3D Systems’ game-changing Figure 4 additive manufacturing technology has not been lost on the U.S. Air Force. In an announcement at RAPID+TCT yesterday, 3D Systems revealed that its Figure 4 Production system had been chosen for Air Force-sponsored research.

The project, which will focus on using 3D Systems’ digital molding system for the production of low criticality components for aircraft maintenance, will be the first time that the U.S. Air Force will explore Digital Light Processing (DLP) technology to that end.

Since its initial launch in 2017, 3D Systems’ Figure 4 additive manufacturing system has made significant waves across the polymer AM industry. With the goal of seamlessly moving from prototyping and design iteration to final production, the Figure 4 system brings together non-contact DLP printing, post-processing, UV curing and robotic automation for a scalable, fully-integrated AM platform.

With part print speeds of up to 65 mm/hr, prototyping print speeds of up to 100 mm/h, high accuracy and Six Sigma repeatability, the Figure 4 has some of the—if not the—fastest additive manufacturing throughput and time-to-part rates. These factors, along with the technology’s modular construction, have drawn interest from the dental, automotive and now aircraft sectors.

The Air Force-sponsored project featuring the Figure 4 Production system is being overseen by America Makes, the U.S.’ national AM innovation institute, and is being spearheaded by the University of Dayton Research Institute (UDRI). In addition to 3D Systems, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK and Northrup Grumman will also be collaborating on the project.

air force

As the initiative kicks off, the partners will be using the DLP-based Figure 4 technology to produce low criticality components for aircraft, including electrical connectors, knobs, elastomeric grommets and spacers for legacy sustainment equipment. In other words, the Air Force will be investigating the suitability of 3D Systems’ digital molding system for manufacturing small parts for older aircraft models.

“We were pleased with the speed, resolution, surface finish, and scalability that we achieved utilizing 3D Systems’ solution,” said Dr. Tim Osborn, a research scientist specializing in AM, multiscale composites and polymers at UDRI. “Our goal is to further explore this technology and establish a clear development, vetting, and transition pathway for the emerging DLP technology in the Figure 4 machine for transition to the U.S. Air Force.”

Ultimately, the hope is to integrate the Figure 4 system for on-demand production of replacement parts for aircraft that may no longer have reliable sources for making them. Because of the machine’s speed, accuracy and repeatability, 3D Systems’ Figure 4 has the potential to significantly reduce the time required for manufacturing aircraft parts, which in turn would allow for faster aircraft repair times and, importantly, reduced on the ground time for aircraft.

“Additive manufacturing is the perfect lean solution because it avoids the need for time-consuming and costly tooling,” added Chuck Hull, co-founder and chief technology officer of 3D Systems. “We are pleased to support the Air Force in its effort to reduce production costs and delivery times through Figure 4, our novel additive manufacturing technology.  We look forward to our continued collaboration with UDRI and other partners—helping expand their arsenal of Figure 4 applications.”

The innovative research is being conducted as part of the multi-year “Maturation of Advanced Manufacturing for Low-cost Sustainment” (MAMLS) program. The exploration of DLP-based technology marks the beginning of Phase III of the Air Force-funded America Makes program.

Tess Boissonneault

Tess Boissonneault moved from her home of Montreal, Canada to the Netherlands in 2014 to pursue a master’s degree in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. It was during her time in Amsterdam that she became acquainted with 3D printing technology and began writing for a local additive manufacturing news platform. Now based in France, Tess has over two and a half years experience writing, editing and publishing additive manufacturing content with a particular interest in women working within the industry. She is an avid follower of the ever-evolving AM industry.

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