The year is 2014. 3D printing has moved past the peak of its hype, industrial manufacturers are beginning to find applications beyond rapid prototyping, Stratasys is trying to take advantage of new business opportunities and an aerospace engineer called Scott Sevcik is looking at a job advertisement seeming to require much of his expertise.
This job opening wanted to take someone working within the aerospace sector and place them in a Stratasys office, using their inside knowledge to develop the company’s play in the industry. Two days later, Sevcik was discussing the role with a recruitment agency and not long after that found himself pitching questions from Rich Garrity, now the President of Americas at Stratasys.
After a dozen years working for aerospace companies, spending two-thirds of that time at Lockheed Martin and a quarter at UTC Aerospace Systems, Garrity asked whether Sevcik was ready to leave the aerospace industry.
Sevcik, weighing up the move, replied: “That’s not what I’m doing.”
“I never viewed coming to Stratasys as leaving the aerospace industry because of the value that additive can bring,” Stratasys’ VP of Aerospace tells TCT. “How I even got interested in additive was because it saved me on a couple of programmes when I was at United Technologies Aerospace Systems. I was working a couple of programmes where there were unique challenges and, in each case, a different additive technology helped find our way out of the challenge.”
The first of these challenges was in the development of an air data system for a business jet, in which a probe had to be oriented in a specific position relative to a largely composite plane, meaning a fixture produced in aluminium wasn’t so amenable. By harnessing an old Stratasys 400 machine that had been used, up until then, pretty much exclusively for rapid prototyping, a polymer mounting fixture was printed and the probe was accurately aligned. A year later, 3D printing would again provide the solution. This time, Sevcik was working on an engine sensor programme 16 weeks behind schedule and faced with a long lead time when trying to procure a casting. Printing the casting in wax clawed back nine weeks of the nearly four months lost.
What’s interesting about this second use case, from around 2012 or 2013 per Sevcik’s memory, is that the client was seriously uncomfortable with the use of 3D printing to produce the casting and was said to be adamant that UTC Aerospace Systems return to traditional casting imminently. It wouldn’t be long, once GE had revealed the full extent to which it was using additive through parts like the LEAP fuel nozzle, that Sevcik and his colleagues would raise a smile with the assurance that the client’s apprehension was, perhaps, unwarranted.
“At that stage, the industry was grappling with the value of additive, but still highly, highly concerned about change and introducing something new,” Sevcik says.
When he joined the aerospace business development team at Stratasys in 2014, Sevcik would learn that there were many big-name aerospace players harnessing additive with much less hesitance, albeit with all of the secrecy, for tooling components. The likes of Airbus and United Air Alliance, meanwhile, were a step ahead, having identified interior cabin parts as suitable applications and actioned 3D printing technology to produce them. This application of 3D printing would be clandestine for another year or two, but by the time it was public knowledge, his old firm Lockheed Martin had caught up, leveraging 3D printing to manufacture thousands of tools on its Joint Strike Fighter assembly line.
“The secrecy, at that point, did the industry a tremendous disservice in terms of slowing adoption,” Sevcik believes. “As we got into that 2015-2017 timeframe, more people became aware that it was a technology where you could actually use a real thermoplastic and there were real robust parts and tools that could be produced. [Today], everybody in aerospace is aware of 3D printing; a lot of the attention, a lot of the focus, a lot of the new adoption has been on the metal side, but we’ve got the polymer side of additive manufacturing now mature to the point where the acceptance is pretty widespread.
“Five years ago, we were having conversations trying to convince people that the technology was good enough to now being able to focus on application requirements and finding a solution rather than overcoming that confidence hurdle. That’s been a pretty dramatic shift.”
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Sevcik’s retort all those years ago that in leaving UTC Aerospace Systems for a 3D printing vendor he wasn’t really leaving the aerospace sector at all was akin to an open goal in soccer or a lay-up in basketball. But when sifting through the list of machine installations, part supplier arrangements and other collaborations within the industry, there was certainly some foresight in that quip.
Across all the prominent application areas, Stratasys’ 3D printing technology is being deployed to churn out parts. In tooling, GKN Aerospace has teamed the F900 machine with the ULTEM 1010 high-strength, heat-resistant material to produce production aids, while Eckhart has deployed a fleet of Stratasys systems in its Advanced Technology Center in Michigan to replace metal tools with carbon fibre reinforced parts. Across a host of industries, these applications are considered the ‘low-hanging fruit’, so that interior cabin parts is where Sevcik sees much of the recent activity is testament to how quickly aerospace’s implementation of additive has progressed.
“Right now, we’re seeing a tonne of qualification activity around cabin interiors,” he says. “There were a couple of customers that kind of led the way with that, and now that is really hitting its stride or crossing an inflection point in terms of the number of major suppliers that are going through that process.”
With Airbus, back when Sevcik first started with Stratasys, he describes the partnership as an ‘education process’, in which Airbus was still getting to grips with the proficiency of 3D printing technology, what it could and couldn’t do, while also having to define material specifications and provide a product that would meet the company’s requirements. Airbus would go on to certify Stratasys’ ULTEM 9085 material, which boasts strength and flammability properties and deploy its FDM technology to produce more than 1,000 parts for the A350 XWB aircraft.
Among the printed parts on the A350 XWB aircraft is a curtain header, typically formed from several layers of laminated fibreglass, which each required its own complex aluminium tool. Measuring up to 1140 x 720 x 240 mm and made up of 12 components glued together after the build, this part is supplied by Diehl Aviation, manufactured on the Stratasys F900 and counts as Diehl’s largest serial 3D printed part in size to date.
Boom is another company leveraging Stratasys’ Certified Aircraft Interior Parts (CAI) combo of the F900 printer and ULTEM 9085 material. Bringing the capability in-house, the company is creating custom parts for its XB-1 aircraft cabin at quicker speeds with less third-party involvement. How Stratasys’ application development team is working with Boom compared to how it started with Airbus, shows just how much has changed for additive in aerospace.
“We work with someone like Boom, and this is similar to the race teams we’re working with around the world, that are doing some very advanced things in a very low volume at a very fast pace, and in many of those cases, the first step with them is just getting their hands on the capability,” Sevcik says.
He also notes how additive’s implementation in maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is ‘picking up considerably’, with the United States Air Force printing replacement parts for long-life aircraft that it can no longer source from the original suppliers. Safran is another company said to be utilising Stratasys technology for MRO, while the 3D printing vendor is three years into a partnership with SIA Engineering Company, a provider of MRO services to more than 80 airlines globally.
Additionally, Stratasys is seeing adoption and application growing in the ether. “We’ve gotten multiple companies that we’re working within space that are using the technology very extensively for tooling,” Sevcik assesses, “but more and more parts are going onto vehicles in really clever ways.”
In May, it was revealed an Italian research organisation used the company’s FDM technology, and the trusty ULTEM 9085 material, to produce a cosmic UV telescope for the International Space Station. United Launch Alliance is also deploying ULTEM 9085 to achieve cost reductions as high as 90% and reduce four-month lead times down to ten-day lead times. The company has transitioned from primarily printing custom build tools to installing end-use parts on its Atlas 5 rocket, with its new Vulcan rocket set to boast even more 3D printed parts.
“Traditional manufacturing is like a hydraulic motor, additive is like an electric motor – maybe it doesn’t have all of the power that you would have with a hydraulic motor, but you also don’t have the ramp-up time.”
The Orion deep-space spacecraft developed by NASA and Lockheed, which have been designed to facilitate further human travel to the moon, are equipped with more than 100 3D printed parts. This programme has not only relied heavily on Stratasys technology to build the vehicles but through its stringent requirements has influenced the company’s offering to market. While the Orion vehicles have exploited the availability of ULTEM 9085 for a myriad of parts, for some, like its docking hatch covering, Lockheed and NASA required electrostatic dissipative (ESD) materials.
“They liked ULTEM 9085,” Sevcik recalls, “it has great outgassing properties, it has great strength properties, great flammability properties, but they said, ‘we need an ESD material; we can’t build up a charge for a part on a spacecraft.’
“They came to use with a certain set of requirements and there wasn’t a material that existed.”
In the form of Antero, today there is and it’s being used within several Orion spacecraft programmes after Lockheed became a BETA customer for the product. Lockheed has used a fleet of more than half a dozen additive manufacturing machines, among them a Fortus 900mc, to produce the Orion’s 3D printed parts. The Fortus 900 platform has enabled larger parts to be produced with higher thermal capability, while the Antero material has ensured parts like the docking hatch cover, which is made up of six assembled pieces and measures one metre in diameter, don’t have to be manufactured in materials that later require coating to enable electrical flow. In addition to the performance capabilities, Lockheed says they have recorded an ‘order of magnitude savings in cost and time.’
Delivering those kinds of savings has been at the core of Stratasys’ product development specific to, or consequential of, the adoption of additive in aerospace. The CAI product offering is popular; long-time partner BAE Systems now has ‘increased access’ to new Stratasys products; materials like ULTEM 9085, Antero and Carbon Fiber Nylon 12CF meet certain aerospace specs and have been a ‘tremendous next step in expanding the application space’; and partnerships with the likes of Solvay and DSM – which, Sevcik believes won’t be the last of their kind – are helping the company to keep pace as adoption scales. As Senior VP of Strategic Growth Pat Carey told TCT when the Solvay partnership was announced in 2019, Stratasys is confident it has the expertise to develop and optimise many of the materials these companies offer but, “it takes time. If we can bring something out four years faster, let’s do it.”
While Stratasys might have been more comfortable to take its time over delivering products when Sevcik was first appointed and most aerospace companies using 3D printing were taking baby steps, the company now perceives the requirement for more urgency. Last year, the company took the significant step to carry out a public qualification of advanced materials with the National Center for Advanced Materials Performance (NCAMP), America Makes, National Institute of Aviation Research, the Air Force Research Lab, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and some of its commercial partners using its additive manufacturing technology.
“One of the things we saw as a problem a number of years ago, that was holding us back as a new technology, was a lack of basic trust and familiarity. We had to overcome that level of trust and make the technology feel more like a traditional technology,” Sevcik explains. “We spent a lot of time driving as much repeatability into [our 3D printing processes] and driving as many defects out as possible. Once we were able to do that, we enlisted industry and a number of commercial partners to get a public qualification done, to get data out there, following the lead of composites.
“The goal of that was to objectively show the level of repeatability, the level of maturity that the technology had reached. There’s a mechanism by which companies can use that data, show equivalency to it and use that for FAA certification, for example, but what we’re seeing mostly is that data being used for confidence purposes.”
Stratasys’ ULTEM 9085 product was the first additive manufacturing material to receive NCAMP-certification, with a host of thermoset materials from Solvay, Hexcel and Toray and a couple of thermoplastics also qualified by the organisation. Users wishing to deploy these materials – the likes of Airbus, GE Aviation and Lockheed are all NCAMP members – have access to NCAMP’s procedures and the specification for each material to receive qualification. It allows companies full transparency, with data and information supplied by an independent organisation, of the materials they might like to use for end-use components and has also led to engagement with SAE International on the AMS7100 process certification of Fused Filament Fabrication for the manufacture of aerospace parts.
Sevcik adds: “Many companies are now launching into or have launched into their own qualification programmes, not with the risks that Airbus took back in 2014 when they qualified the technology – they didn’t know if they could get through a qualification, they didn’t know if the technology was going to perform the way they needed it to. Now, that data is out there, and they know what they’re going to get when they work through a qualification process. I think that has been one of the most significant things that we’ve done, or that the industry has done: getting objective data out there so that process of trust and standardisation can start.”
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Trust in the technology is essential not only to deliver on the quality and durability and repeatability required for aerospace components but also as a vehicle to carry out supply chain transformations and reduce physical inventory. Sevcik knows of companies in the aerospace sector carrying billions of dollars’ worth of inventory all around the world, with money being spent on storage, transportation and, eventually, the scrapping of unneeded spares. But for them to shed this physical catalogue of parts and move to digital inventories, they need to trust the tech will work as and when needed and their files and IP will be safe in digital transportation. After the COVID-19 outbreak, concerns around reducing inventory would be understandable, as governments around the world struggled to procure PPE and medical equipment in short supply, but the cost savings in doing so would be titanic. Sevcik likes the concept of ‘one on the shelf’, a balance between ideals in which physical inventory is reduced but there’s no wait for parts to be manufactured when they’re needed and if they aren’t ever in demand, only one part gets scrapped.
The logistics have been on the minds of many aerospace companies for some time, though the implementation of such supply chains has not yet been significant, per Sevcik. The events of early 2020, however, might have opened some eyes as to the flexibility 3D printing technology can afford. Stratasys has seen many of its customers, including Boeing, Blue Origin and Raytheon, talk publicly about how they leveraged additive to produce face shield components for medical professionals across the globe, with its FDM technology at the centre of their efforts. Sevcik has heard stories of ‘the guy in the lab’ called into meetings with C-level execs and government officials to explain how the company could respond, changing significantly ‘the executive exposure’ around 3D printing. There have been people working in supply chain introduced to completely new ways of manufacturing products and tens of thousands of face shields delivered just among Stratasys’ aerospace users alone.
“It showed that we as an industry, even though we’re viewed as slow, have the ability to turn on a dime and switch production to something entirely different that we weren’t producing a day or two ago because of additive. That’s not something that aerospace traditionally has been able to do,” says Sevcik. “One of the executives I spoke to [recently] said traditional manufacturing is like a hydraulic motor, additive is like an electric motor – maybe it doesn’t have all of the power that you would have with a hydraulic motor, but you also don’t have the ramp-up time; you just flip the switch and you are at 100% capacity and you’re doing something different than you were doing yesterday. That’s what they’re seeing and that is what really enables supply chain flexibility in a way that’s been dreamt about but never really seen in practice.
“Being able to switch a part design in a day so that you can move from one customised or personalised part to a different one; just the ability to increase a high mix in low volume manufacture, that’s always been something that we’ve been working for in the industry and it got demonstrated very robustly earlier this year when a bunch of aerospace companies suddenly became the leading producers of personal protective equipment overnight.”
Now, the ambition is for those same companies to replicate the flexibility, the speed and the scale for aerospace components, while the additive industry, Sevcik emphasises, needs to make strides in the certification of more materials, more machines and more processes. There’s still much work to do to facilitate the continued growth in the sector. But still, Sevcik feels as much a part of the aerospace industry now as he did ten years ago, and more than ever, he believes additive manufacturing is perfect for the industry he’s spent his entire career in.
“Aerospace is the big-leap industry. It’s often viewed as a very slow, stodgy industry, things take forever to change, but at the same time, every change is a major, major step. We’ve gone from inventing flight to flying to the moon in about 50 years. And now, COVID aside, we had aeroplanes landing every 20 seconds somewhere in the world – we were filling the sky with aeroplanes. It’s an industry that makes huge leaps and really enables the rest of manufacturing to follow,” Sevcik finishes. “So, while additive is young as a manufacturing technology, aerospace is the right home for it to mature, same way with composites 40 years ago. They take the risk, they invested and now it’s filtering out into energy and other industries.
“It’s the industry that sees the long-term value in being able to produce on-demand, on-location and to create geometries that reduce part count and reduce weight. And so, those values, both in design and in supply chain efficiency, are incredibly appealing to aerospace and it’s the right industry to incubate and mature the technology for them.”
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