Leonardo makes time and cost savings by utilizing ROBOZE FFF 3D printing technology

Italian defence contractor Leonardo has successfully utilized Italian 3D printer manufacturer ROBOZE’s FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) 3D printing technology to produce aerospace components. 

Leonardo used ROBOZE’s ARGO line of 3D printers to manufacture a range of carbon fiber-filled nylon 6 and PEEK parts. By switching from conventional production methods to additive manufacturing (AM), the Italian defence company was able to make time and cost savings. In addition, Leonardo was able to take advantage of the increased design flexibility allowed by the process, to produce parts with increased thermal and chemical resistance. 

“Techno-polymers such as Polyether Ether ketone (PEEK), combined with a high presence of chopped carbon fibers, open up some interesting horizons for development,” said Stefano Corvaglia, Intellectual Property Manager and Head of Research and Development of the Aerostructures Division. “Testing with these materials is of particular scientific and technological interest since they give some structural and chemical-physical properties of extreme technological significance to the items produced, for example thermal and chemical resistance”.

Using ROBOZE's 3D printing technology, Leonardo found that it could produce aerospace parts more efficiently.
Using ROBOZE’s 3D printing technology, Leonardo found that it could produce aerospace parts more efficiently. Image via Leonardo.

ROBOZE in the 3D printing industry 

Founded in 2014, and with headquarters based both in Bari, Italy and in Texas, ROBOZE is a developer of high-temperature FFF/FDM 3D printers and advanced thermoplastic polymers. Often referred to as “superpolymers,” parts produced using the company’s 3D printing materials such as carbon PA and carbon PEEK, are reportedly able to match the mechanical properties of those created using metals. 

ROBOZE has entered into partnerships to develop these performance polymers with companies such as SABIC and Solvay, in order to create a range of high-performance filaments. The EXTEM AMHH811F filament developed with SABIC for instance, is highly heat-resistant and flame-retardant, and was produced to replace metals in extreme applications. 

Since the launch of the company’s One+400 3D printer, ROBOZE systems have all featured its patented beltless system. This includes the ARGO 500 system which, unlike its predecessor, was able to print replacement parts with high viscosity materials such as PEEK, Ultem AM9085F, carbon PA and PEEK filled with carbon fibers. 

The company’s latest range of 3D printers, the Xtreme series, was launched in North America at RAPID+TCT 2019. Designed to bridge the gap between the ROBOZE’s desktop and production systems, the One Xtreme and One+400 Xtreme were dubbed “desktop/production printers.” The 3D printers featured upgraded belt systems and High Viscosity Polymers (HVP) extruders, facilitating the processing of more challenging materials.

More recently, ROBOZE has collaborated with universities to develop its 3D printing technology for defence applications. In 2019 for example, the company worked with SkyBox Engineering, an aerospace research and development spin-off from the University of Pisa, to produce functional parts for a drone. Additionally, the ROBOZE partnered with The University of Delaware in February 2020, to accelerate the 3D printing of finished parts and mission-critical components for the US Army

In ROBOZE’s latest partnership with defence contractor Leonardo, the company is now attempting to develop the aerospace applications of its 3D printing technology within the defence industry.

The hot build chamber of the ROBOZE Argo 500 3D printer (pictured), which is designed for continuous operation. Image via ROBOZE.
The hot build chamber of the ROBOZE Argo 500 3D printer (pictured), which is designed for continuous operation. Image via ROBOZE.

The collaboration between ROBOZE and Leonardo 

Utilizing ROBOZE ARGO 500 industrial 3D printers, Leonardo was reportedly able to remove any of the surface porosity and roughness associated with 3D printing using fused filament materials. This was somewhat due to the system’s patented beltless design, which is able to produce parts with precision levels of up to 0.01 mm. Moreover, the process is repeatable, and compatible with the highest performing polymers and composite materials, offering productivity benefits to the Italian defence contractors as well. 

The test itself was aimed at replacing traditional metal molds with polymer-based elements such as Carbon PA and Carbon PEEK. By optimizing the printing parameters of the ROBOZE 3D printer, Leonardo was able to not just produce parts with smooth surfaces, but to maintain a vacuum, which is an essential part of the materials’ curing process.

Additionally, utilizing technopolymers within the AM process, enabled the company to use them for enhanced high-temperature applications. During testing, the high level of thermal stability provided by the polymer and carbon fiber materials did not cause significant deformations in the molds during the cross-linking vulcanization process. As a result, Leonardo found that through using these heat-resistant composites, it could reduce development costs and times compared to traditional manufacturing techniques.

The project, led by Nicola Gallo, Lead Engineer of Leonardo’s aerostructures division, was recognized during the A&T 2020 fair in Turin during February 2020, receiving the Innovation 4.0 award in the research and university category. Now, having successfully integrated 3D printing into Leonardo’s production process, the companies will examine the durability and repetition of the process within thermal cycles. 

“Thermoplastic techno-polymers are made up of non-interconnected chains that are linear or have few branches. By raising the temperature, we’re able to bring them to a viscous state and therefore to shape them and, in the case of additive technology, to fabricate them in layers” added Corvaglia. “What’s more, thanks to a technology that enables us to achieve previously unattainable levels of precision in fabrication, we can improve our capacity and speed in developing prototypes.”

Heat resistance and FFF 3D printing materials 

3D printing material manufacturers are increasingly developing polymers for FFF systems that display enhanced heat and chemical resistant qualities.  

Ohio-based chemicals and materials company Lubrizol for instance, launched three new FFF thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) materials for fused filament fabrication (FFF) 3D printing in June 2020. The thermoplastics, designed for use in FFF applications such as industrial jigs and fixtures, display long-term heat performance

Polish 3D printing filament manufacturer Spectrum Filaments, launched its new ABS Medical and PETG FX120 polymers in April 2020. Both filaments are flexible, and display a high-temperature resistance.

Texas-based 3D printer manufacturer Essentium Inc, announced a partnership with chemical and mineral materials specialist LEHVOSS Group to develop high-performance materials in March 2020. The line of  PEEK materials and High-Temperature Nylons (HTN), were created specifically for production-level extrusion-based 3D printing processes.

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Featured image shows a fighter jet developed using Leonardo’s aerospace technology. Image via Leonardo.