With support from GE Additive AddWorks, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI), a developer of unmanned aerial vehicles for the U.S. military and commercial market, has test flown its first metal 3D printed part on a SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA). The tests mark a milestone in the company’s adoption of additive manufacturing technologies.
GA-ASI recognized the benefits of 3D printing early on, having first explored polymer-based AM processes nine years ago. Since then, the company has continued its investigation into additive production, forming a deep understanding of its benefits. More recently, GA-ASI has turned to metal AM, establishing a metal 3D printing roadmap as well as a dedicated AM team.
Through this framework, the company was able to develop applications for metal AM across its business, identifying parts which would be beneficial to 3D print from metal rather than produced using conventional methods. One of these parts was a NACA inlet, used in the company’s SkyGuardian RPA, a military-grade system used around the world.
In developing the 3D printed component, GA-ASI enlisted GE Additive Addworks to help it accelerate the use of laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) technology and produce and flight test its first metal 3D printed part within a strict timeframe. The companies started their collaboration in April 2019 and by February 2020 (within just eight months), they had achieved GA-ASI’s goal of test flying the metal component.
The NACA inlet was identified by GA-ASI as a good option for its first metal AM part to be qualified after an assessment of the business case, part criticality and program impacts. The GE Additive Addworks team then supported the production process by optimizing design potential and providing valuable process knowledge. Ultimately, the drone component was 3D printed as a single piece from Titanium Ti6Al4V using a Concept Laser M2 system.
By transitioning the part’s production to AM, GA-ASI achieved significant weight (over 30%) and cost reductions (over 90% per part). Traditionally, the part is formed from three titanium sheet metal components that are welded together, a method that is accompanied by challenging tooling, labor and inspection processes. Looking specifically at tooling, the company was able to achieve a reduction of about 85% by switching to AM.
Now, with the successful test flight complete, the 3D printed NACA inlet will move into the final qualification phase for the SkyGuardian program. The GA-ASI team is also applying best practices and knowledge to the wider NACA inlet family, as well as a number of other components and sub-systems. The company has also made the decision to purchase additional GE Additive Concept Laser M2 Series 5 machines, which will be installed at its new Additive Design & Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Poway, California this year.
GE Additive Addworks will continue to provide consultancy to the UAV manufacturer, helping it to scale up its metal additive manufacturing operations.
“With the GE Additive AddWorks team, we were able not only to achieve our short term objective of qualifying the NACA inlet, but we also worked together on a number of additional application development and qualification efforts, which are continuing into 2020 and beyond,” said Elie Yehezkel, senior vice president of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies for GA-ASI. “It is important that we remain at the leading edge of manufacturing technologies for our products and our customers. This acceleration has driven the maturation of our metal AM strategy and has also informed how we plan to approach a much wider application space already in the pipeline.”