GKN Aerospace and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) in Tennessee have signed a five-year cooperative research and development agreement focused on additive manufacturing (AM). Using the Department’s Manufacturing Demonstration Facility (MDF), the $178 million deal aims to develop new AM processes, supporting progress towards their use in manufacturing of major aircraft structural components.
“AM could cut material waste by as much as 90 percent and manufacturing times by around 50 percent,” Mike Grunza, chief executive of GKN’s Aerostructures North America business told a recent press briefing. “[It] will unlock new manufacturing horizons, allowing us to create complex components with no performance compromise.”
Initially, GKN and ORNL will focus on developing laser metal deposition with wire (LMD-w), an AM technique using a laser to layer melted-wire beads on to a substrate to build metal structures. They aim to create a prototype machine to manufacture complex medium- and large-scale titanium parts.
The partners then will support work already under way to make electron-beam melting (EBM) ready for full-scale, high-volume aerospace production. EBM can be used to produce small and medium-size components by melting metal powder with an electron beam to build parts layer-by-layer.
AM can be “one of the most profound technology disruptors of our day,” according to ORNL energy and environmental-sciences associate laboratory director Moe Khaleel. “This partnership will leverage our core capabilities in high-performance materials research, leading to improved efficiency of materials and energy usage for aerospace applications.”
As GKN Aerospace increases investment in such research, the question for engineering and technology senior vice-president Russ Dunn is “when, and at what pace,” aerospace will move further into AM applications. The company says it has AM parts flying on seven major aircraft platforms.
Other components have undergone certification trials and are awaiting clearance as GKN continues to make: “significant new investment in large-scale deposition,” according to Dunn, who recognized the need for quality as the industry increases capacity: “Anyone can make AM parts, but you need to be able to control [the process] through knowledge that you are making a good part.”
GKN has AM partnerships in seven countries. The group’s five centers of excellence for the technology include design and manufacturing at Filton (UK), Oak Ridge (U.S.), and Trollhattan (Sweden), as well as sinter metals research at Radevormwald (Germany), and powder development at Cinnaminson (U.S).
In addition to AM activities, Dunn emphasized GKN Aerospace's “very broad band” of products. “Our technology offers the solutions customers need,” he said, citing three other key “insertion” technologies: thermoplastics, engine composites, and aircraft electrics. The executive also noted the company's “great deal of experience” in core areas that could (or already does) lead the industry: empennages, engine modules, fuselages, integrated systems, nacelles, and wings.
Use of thermoplastics in, for example, manufacturing fuselage shells is “effectively welding without fasteners,” according to Dunn. GKN claims that a welded, boltless assembly it features in a thermoplastic, grid-structure fuselage-panel “demonstrator” provides “a 10 percent weight reduction [and] potential 30-percent reduction in manufacturing costs over other composites' fuselage solutions.” Indeed, Dunn suggested that designing for thermoplastics “saves up to 25 percent in weight.”
Examples of GKN thermoplastic parts include: Airbus A380 wing fixed leading edge; Gulfstream G650 rudder, elevator, and floor panels; and horizontal stabilizer for the Leonardo AW169 helicopter. It also will produce the rudder and elevator for the new Dassault Falcon 5X business jet, as well as other advanced fuselage shells and horizontal stabilizers.
The company's own advanced-composites experience has been complemented by that of Fokker Technologies in thermoplastics and glass-reinforced aluminum laminates (Glare) material since GKN acquired the Dutch business last year. Dunn summarized GKN skills in manufacturing composite engine parts, which include structures for the CFM International Leap-1B engine combustion diffuser nozzle and assembly.
He noted improving performance on all current and future engines for which the company makes parts. “GKN composites expertise has enabled design of lightweight components, optimized aerodynamic performance, [and] innovative process solutions.” Dunn listed other composites applications in fan exit-guide vanes, containment cases, spacers, and spinners; Pratt & Whitney F135 multi-functional structures; and advanced demonstrator programs.
Regarding aircraft systems electrification, Dunn described current technology as “just the first generation” that will lead to “progressive evolution, then a significant step forward to more-electric power [and] less-and-less hydraulics.” He sees GKN as well placed to lead in electric-wiring interconnection systems (EWIS) design and manufacture, and anti-ice and ice-detection solutions.
Last year, GKN Fokker Technologies established a memorandum of agreement with UTC Aerospace Systems to collaborate on research, development, and design of integrated electrical solutions for more-electric aircraft. Fokker Technologies systems equip Boeing 777, 737NG, and 737 Max aircraft (supported by GKN teams in China, India, and Turkey) and Bombardier C Series 100 and 300 (EWIS produced in China). GKN EWIS or anti-ice/ice-detection equipment is also on board Airbus A320 and A380, Boeing 787, Bombardier Global 7000, and Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft.
The planned AM research venture with ORNL comes as the company continues to expand. GKN Aerospace chief executive Kevin Cummings said the Fokker integration was “basically complete” by April, with the first full year's revenue putting the company's global position at No 2 in aerostructures and No 3 in electrical wiring.
Cummings described the Fokker acquisition – “a super experience” – as increasing GKN's global footprint (which includes other facilities in China, India, Mexico, Romania, and Turkey), confirming its technology “offer” in thermoplastics and electrification, and enhancing customer relationships and the company's position on growth platforms.
All told, GKN Aerospace (Chalet A355) has some 55 manufacturing locations in 14 countries on three continents, positioned “where our customers need a technology partner,” according to Cummings. North America has 28 sites (including four in Mexico and one in Canada), while Europe features 21 (Netherlands eight, UK seven, Romania and Sweden two each, and single sites in Germany and Turkey). Asia and West Asia host six GKN manufacturing points (two in India, and one each in China, Singapore, and Thailand).
Cummings said company strategy has been to grow “at or above the market” rate—a plan that has seen sales grow at an equivalent annual compound rate of 18 percent/year during 2012-16, including 36.8 percent last year. He acknowledged the part played by a mix of acquisitions and organic growth, which GKN plans to continue.
Looking forward, Cummings expects 2017 orders to lag behind deliveries, resulting in a book-to-bill ratio of less than one. He suggested that long-term airline passenger-traffic growth could be “anywhere between 3.5 percent and 4.5 percent. The market fundamentals are all solid and looking pretty good for industry over the short to medium term.”
GKN is trying to be a leader, said Cummings: “Number 1, 2, or 3 – not an also ran.” He sees the group as the global leader in electro-thermal ice protection, while occupying the second slot in aerostructures, engine structures, rotorcraft fuel tanks, and transparencies (windows and canopies); it is Number 3 in electrical wiring.