ASTRO America, the Applied Science & Technology Research Organization, has completed a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-commissioned study to accelerate the production of hypersonic missiles, potentially employing 3D printing.
The research details design plans for a Hypersonic Production Accelerator Facility (HPAF), one that consolidates a hypersonics government customer and leading manufacturers at every tier under one roof.
Rather than operating under the previously unsuccessful “disaggregated supply chain”, the HPAF will house materials suppliers, factory equipment providers, propulsion developers, and lead system integrators. The idea is that the entire contractor team can work closely together on the development of a manufacturing process for the weapon systems.
The Hypersonic Production Accelerator Facility
The HPAF will see partners working with a wide variety of leading-edge manufacturing technologies, including metal additive manufacturing, in a closed-loop system. ASTRO has stated that the equipment should be refreshed or renewed every three years to maintain competitiveness.
Mick Maher, CTO of ASTRO America, told 3D Printing Industry: “Additive Manufacturing is one of the tools that the hypersonic OEMs are assessing for these kinds of projects, and the benefits of additive over traditional manufacturing include improved cycle times, design flexibility, agility, tool-free production and more. The HPAF becomes a facility where the supply chain can select and operate the latest and greatest tools to seamlessly meet their needs.”
Using input from over 100 aerospace professionals, former government officials, and academic experts in an intensive workshop last year, ASTRO settled on a compartmentalized, almost modular infrastructure for the facility. Competing industrial teams will be able to go ahead with classified production in their own secure ‘lanes’, away from prying eyes. This serves to protect national security and intellectual property, all while eliminating supply chains delays caused by unfortunate geography.
Maher adds: “Adopting this innovative approach would result in cost savings of 45 percent and a 73 percent reduction in delivery times compared to previous prototype fabrication efforts while maintaining industrial competition in order to provide the right solutions.”
The facility was ultimately conceived to help the US “regain competitiveness” in a critical defense technology, one where it has been lagging behind China and Russia. According to ASTRO, the US has yet to deliver a fully functional weapon capable of flying above MACH 5 (3800 mph), while China has reportedly already built twice the number of factories dedicated to producing such a weapon.
The US armed forces have already made solid use of additive manufacturing technology. The Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s B-2 Program Office recently 3D printed protective components for the B-2 Spirit, aka the Stealth Bomber. The part in question was a permanent protective cover for the airframe mounted accessory drive (AMAD) decouple switch located in the cockpit of the aircraft.
Elsewhere, engineers from the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex recently became the first to successfully test a 3D printed metal component inside a U.S. Air Force aircraft engine. The significant milestone paves a new route for future sustainment and spare part production for the TF33-P103 engine, which powers the B-52 Stratofortress.
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Featured image shows a concept for the HPAF. Image via ASTRO America.