Boeing takes to the sky with Chinook’s first 3D printed flight-critical part

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Aerospace manufacturer Boeing has made strides in the defense sector by flight-testing a 3D printed flight-critical component on a Chinook helicopter for the very first time.

Conducted as part of a T408 engine demonstration, the flight test saw the Chinook take flight with an aluminum gearbox housing 3D printed by Boeing, the OEM behind the aircraft. This is reportedly the first instance of a rotorcraft taking flight with such a component on board, paving the way for additional 3D printed advancements for the Chinook.

Todd Harder, Lead Drive Systems Engineer at Boeing, states, “To our knowledge, it’s the first usage of additive manufacturing on a flight-critical component like this. We built on a lot of the stuff that Boeing has done over the past few years and made it to the point where we had a repeatable process that met all of the quality requirements of a flight-worthy component. It just opens up a world of possibilities for what we can do as far as flexibility goes.”

The Boeing CH-47 Chinook. Photo via UK Ministry of Defence.
The Boeing CH-47 Chinook. Photo via UK Ministry of Defence.

The CH-47 Chinook

With a first flight dating all the way back to the early 60s, the Boeing CH-47 Chinook is a twin-engined, tandem-rotor, heavy-lift helicopter. To this day, the rotorcraft is one of the heaviest lifting Western helicopters and is used in air assault missions, troop and ammunition dropoffs, and food and water transport. The unit cost of the Chinook comes in at an eye-watering $35 million, and its top speed is 302km/h.

As a manufacturer, Boeing prides itself on its continual investments in its products. The new T408 engine demo, in particular, was intended to showcase how the Chinook could leverage a new set of engines with 50% more horsepower than the current setup. Key to the success of the flight test was the 3D printed aluminum gearbox housing, which was shown to be able to withstand the high stresses of rotorcraft flight.

Harder adds, “The Chinook is still an innovative platform. We’re looking at new manufacturing technologies and other areas to get us to the next 50 years of flight and show that we’re moving forward in that direction. There’s a lot of capability within the Chinook platform that’s going to be valuable to our customers in the future.”

The 3D printed aluminum gearbox housing. Photo via Boeing.
The 3D printed aluminum gearbox housing. Photo via Boeing.

Lead time, cost, and part performance

So why opt for 3D printing in the first place? Heavy industries like the defense sector are notorious for their long lead times, which can make spare part sourcing a paint point for the military, especially if the parts in question are now obsolete. By bringing end-use production in-house with 3D printing technology, Boeing was able to eliminate the long delivery times associated with traditional manufacturing, all while ensuring the cost of the gearbox housing were kept to a minimum.

There’s also something to be said about the design freedom granted by additive manufacturing, as cutting unnecessary component weight is crucial for heavy lift vehicles like the Chinook. By optimizing the gearbox housing for additive manufacturing, Boeing’s engineers were able to produce a higher-performance part more fit for purpose.

“AM allows a level of creativity in design that is not possible with traditional methods, and is being used to optimize the design of better aerospace products,” explains Melissa Orme, VP of Boeing Additive Manufacturing. “We’re continuously looking to identify opportunities where we can employ additive manufacturing to improve product performance through streamlining the vehicle, reducing its weight, and providing more durability.”

Boeing's recent T408 engine demonstration. Photo via Boeing.
Boeing’s recent T408 engine demonstration. Photo via Boeing.

Over the past year alone, there have been several 3D printing milestones for flight components in the defense and wider aerospace sectors. Aerospace firm Honeywell Aerospace received a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification for its first 3D printed flight-critical engine component. The part in question – a #4/5 bearing housing – is a key structural component of the ATF3-6 turbofan engine found in the Dassault Falcon 20G maritime patrol aircraft.

Elsewhere, students from Dade County Middle School in Trenton, Georgia recently used their school’s FDM 3D printer to produce flight-ready components for the International Space Station. The parts were printed on an industrial-grade Stratasys Fortus 450mc using high-performance ULTEM filament, a material characterized by its high strength, flame resistance, and excellent dielectric stability.

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Featured image shows the Boeing CH-47 Chinook. Photo via UK Ministry of Defence.