AFRL, Boeing, Thermwood apply Large Scale Additive Manufacturing to autoclave tools

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Manufacturing and Industrial Technology Division (ManTech) is collaborating with Boeing and Indiana-based machinery manufacturer Thermwood to produce low-cost responsive tooling using additive manufacturing.

As part of AFRL’s Low-Cost Attributable Technology (LCAAT) program, the partners are leveraging Thermwood’s Large Scale Additive Manufacturing (LSAM) machine to 3D print autoclave tools for aerospace components. 

“Future fielded low cost, but capable UAV’s will need a responsive materials and manufacturing processes strategy,” explained Craig Neslen, LCAAT Initiative Manufacturing Lead. 

 “Additive manufactured composite tooling is one of many technologies being evaluated to ensure the industrial base can handle future manufacturing surge requirements as well as accommodate periodic system tech refresh activities which could necessitate minor vehicle design changes at an acceptable cost.”

Large-scale additive manufacturing for tooling

The LCAAT program aims to break the cost growth curve and production time of new vehicular systems. Such systems are exposed to elevated pressure and temperatures, and require an industrial autoclave to process and sterilize its parts and materials.

The LSAM machine has been used to 3D print what is believed to be the largest autoclave capable tool ever made for American aerospace manufacturer Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. It is currently being used to mold and develop blades for its helicopters. Furthermore, Boeing has applied the LSAM process, which uses Vertical Layer Printing (VLP) technology, to 3D print a 12 foot long Boeing 777x trim tool, which took 43 hours and 20 minutes to produce.

As a result of its former collaborations, Boeing contracted Thermwood for the LCAAT program to 3D print a section of a fuselage skin tool to evaluate the LSAM functionality. Andrea Helbach, AFRL Program Manager, added “We are interested in additively manufactured tooling’s ability to reduce the cost and time to procure autoclave capable tooling. Additionally, AM tooling supports changes in vehicle design with minimal non-recurring expenses.”

The concept for AFRL’s aircraft fuselage skin and tooling. Image via Thermwood.
The concept for AFRL’s aircraft fuselage skin and tooling. Image via Thermwood.

A 3D printed Fuselage skin

Using a 40mm print core running 25% carbon fiber reinforced Polyethersulfone (PESU), a mid-scale tool was 3D printed ib 5 hours and 15 minutes. This mold, weighing 367 pounds, is said to have the same width, height and bead path as the final tool, however it has been shortened in length from 10 feet to 4 feet.

Following the machining of the tool, it was probed for surface profile and tested for vacuum integrity. The full-scale tool is expected to weigh approximately 1,400 pounds and require 18 hours to print, according to Thermwood. Presently, Boeing and the AFRL are carefully documenting all operational parameters of the project to transition the technology to production programs.

A section of a 3D printed fuselage skin. Photo via Thermwood.
A section of a 3D printed fuselage skin. Photo via Thermwood.

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Featured image shows a section of a 3D printed fuselage skin. Photo via Thermwood.