From design to test flight in six months after close collaboration GE Additive’s AddWorks team, the GA-ASI team launched a test flight of its MQ-9B SkyGuardian, the first remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) with a metal printed part, its NACA inlet.

From Design to Test Flight in Six Months

Over the past nine years, GA-ASI has built deep experience with polymer-based additive technologies and over recent years, has made strides in developing its metal additive roadmap and a dedicated additive manufacturing team.

After establishing the required ecosystem requirements to develop its metal additive manufacturing application space, the GA-ASI Additive Manufacturing (AM) team identified a series of parts and families of applications with potentially favorable business cases.

Last year, the GA-ASI AM core team selected GE Additive AddWorks to support the acceleration of metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) additive development at the company, with the objective of having its first 3D-printed metal part take flight within an aggressive timeline.

GA-ASI and GE Additive AddWorks began collaborating in April 2019, an engagement that included a wide range of engineering consultancy services, such as design for additive (DfAM) training, industrialization process development and materials validation for Titanium and other metals - to optimize part design and accelerate part qualification.

Within eight months, this intensive period of collaboration resulted in the GA-ASI additive manufacturing team reaching the milestone they had set themselves – performing the company’s first test flight of a metal 3D-printed part - a NACA inlet made in Titanium Ti6Al4V – on a SkyGuardian RPA in early February 2020.

Defining the business case and part selection

With a desire to secure an early win, the GA-ASI AM team had already begun to identify a pipeline of suitable components for metal additive manufacturing and had started to tie them back to GA-ASI’s business priorities.

During that process, a NACA inlet1 was identified as a strong contender to be the first metal 3D-printed part for the SkyGuardian program.

After assessing the business case, part criticality as well as program impacts, GA-ASI selected the NACA inlet as their first metal component to be qualified, the GE Additive AddWorks team was able to accelerate and support the industrialization process and production readiness of the NACA inlet by unlocking design potential, as well as providing expertise to reduce deterministically the qualification risks.

“We know firsthand that the ability to secure buy-in from multiple cross-functional stakeholders is often critical to the success of any metal additive program within an organization. By adding GE’s prior experience and perspective to the GA-ASI’s internal leadership efforts, the joint team was able to reach the required project momentum in order to meet their milestone,” said Lauren Thompson, operations project manager at GE Additive AddWorks and part of the team working with GA-ASI.

“Combining our deep domain expertise of metal additive and best practices from our own additive journey with GA-ASI’s equally deep domain expertise of their RPA applications allowed us to move quickly and work within the timelines we had set,” added Thompson.

Weight, cost and part reduction

Following the successful test flight, the NACA inlet will now enter the final qualification phase for the SkyGuardian program.

The reimagined single piece NACA inlet in Titanium Ti6Al4V offers GA-ASI significant reductions to its weight and cost, especially when compared to the conventional method of manufacturing that makes the inlet from three parts of welded formed sheet metal Titanium. This made tooling, fabrication labor and weld inspection a challenge.

The inlet is now additively manufactured as a single piece, rather than three - on a Concept Laser M2 machine - and delivers a cost reduction per part of more than 90%, weight reduction of over 30%, and tooling reduction of approximately 85%.

Consolidating the number of parts has numerous benefits, including reduced procurement cost. Reduced assembly and inspection time in turn simplifies GA-ASI’s supply chain and inventory requirements.

Following the successful completion of the work on the first inlet, the GA-ASI team is already applying best practices and knowledge to its wider NACA inlet part family and several other components and sub-systems.


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