Collins Aerospace Taking Big Steps into Additive

 - February 11, 2019, 4:43 PM

Seeing a growing acceptance and “change in mindset” toward additive manufacturing, Collins Aerospace is exploring possibilities for three-dimensional printing throughout its business lines. The former UTC Aerospace organization had created a centralized team to foster the use of additive manufacturing in its various business units through education, development, and training. Headed by Paula Hay, executive director of additive design and manufacturing, that effort has now shifted post-merger to coordinate expertise between the combined Collins and UTAS groups under Collins Aerospace.

 “We are a very holistic organization,” Hay said. Her team not only coordinates with its various business units on prospects for additive, but also with parent UTC on shared lessons and opportunities.

“When we look at additive, we are not [lacking for] opportunities,” she said. “It crosses every single one of our business units…everything from big things to small things, from simple brackets to complicated heat exchangers. We really do run the gamut.”

Additive manufacturing “gives you a breadth of opportunity. Literally, the sky's the limit," she added.

The centralized team is gearing up to bring a number of new products to market this year, she said. By the end of last year, it had the initial few in production. The first to make its way into flight was a plastic cover that surrounds lighted signs in aircraft cabins. “We are looking to accelerate that and get [new additive products] into flight throughout the next year,” Hay said. “Our real goal is to move this from a technology development arena to a technology adoption arena.

The team works on product development so projects can then move into the various business sectors for production. “We do a lot of training and teaching,” she said, including sharing expertise between the groups.

This involves looking through parts in the business units to see which ones could be better served through additive, which ones are better produced through traditional means, and which new parts could be developed to serve the same or new purposes.

There isn’t always value in drop-in replacements—that is, producing a similar part already in production with a similar approach using additive, Hay said. “You are not really taking advantage of what additive can do.” But if you can replace multiple parts with a single part or add a new product, then there is much greater potential.

The team has examined multiple kinds of materials, initially with polymers, before moving into metals such as Inconel alloys and titanium. Aluminum originally was a less viable material for additive manufacturing. But industry recently has discovered aluminum that is more weldable for the additive process, she said.

 “Actually, we can build parts that are just as good as or better than the aluminum parts today,” she said. “We are finding that sometimes we can flip materials now. There are some powder suppliers and other folks in research/academia that are working on some powders that we're keeping our eye on.”

As such, the company increased the capacity of its metal printing capabilities, going from two machines in mid-2017 to six currently used for metals.

The team strives to look at the easier, simpler parts first. “You don't necessarily want to make your very first part to be your most complicated part,” she said, because if the part gets too complicated, then it could raise doubts on the value of additive. “We try to balance and get [the groups] learning on some more basic parts—things like a bracket or simple valve—and let them move into the bigger one. For us, it's really about leveraging the learning we are getting, then training, and getting the information out to benefit the rest of the businesses.”

She said these efforts have turned into “a community” that has grown exponentially. At the beginning of 2018, the community had just a handful of people participating. “Now we have close to 100,” she said. These are people who’ve become interested in the technology or have a project or information they want to share.

“We found that there was actually a passion out there,” she added, particularly with engineers and those involved in information technology. “It's been growing, as people learn and see the potential of additive. It's growing very quickly. “

Hay sees five primary benefits from additive. The first is weight savings, through the ability to swap materials, use of only the material you need, or a reduction in parts count. “We’ve seen weight savings of 50 percent.”

In concert, elimination of parts count is another major benefit, she said, noting a component requiring well over 100 parts may be able to be taken down to 20 or 30. “When you take parts away and start making them in one piece, you take away failure modes. You are taking away fasteners and welds, things that can fail. So you tend to get better quality.”

Developmental lead-time savings is another key benefit. “Lead-time can be huge. We've actually reduced time significantly. If you can produce a part in six days and instead of six weeks, it starts to become a big deal.” In development, it is as important because with traditional manufacturing everything has to be perfectly in place before the part is manufactured. Now design can be altered with additive. “You may be able to turn the design iterations and optimize it in that same amount of time.”

Another significant benefit is freedom of design. Hay noted that the group recently experimented with a new heat exchanger design. “It kind of looked like a heart,” she said, adding that designers can go in any number of directions rather staying within a box. “You can do designs that you couldn't even think of doing before with traditional manufacturing. It really opens up the design space for our businesses,” Hay said. The fifth benefit is cost savings, which can be substantial. “Again, we've seen anything from 10 percent to 50 percent,” she said.

These benefits may involve a trade-off, Hay added. Sometimes additive will result in a flat cost but improve weight. “Very rarely will you get all five of the attributes. But you can trade off and decide what you want,” she said.

While the company spools up on additive, Hay concedes there are a few obstacles, particularly on the regulatory front. While parts approval is occurring, the approval process “is in its infancy.” The FAA and EASA are certifying individual parts, but “they don't really yet have a full-blown set of requirements.” Getting products to market requires extensive reviews, she said. “It's a lot of looking at the data. Then they ask a lot of questions. Then they look at the data some more.” Approval occurs on a part-by-part basis.

“This is a new technology that we have to work through,” she said. “As people get more comfortable and more data is available, the process to streamline will come much quicker.”

The FAA realizes this, she said, noting the agency has a roadmap to develop a more standardized process. “Everybody's on board with what needs to get done,” she said. “We just need enough hard data experience in order to make people comfortable.”

For a supplier, most products are certified through the customers. “They ultimately have the FAA responsibility,” Hay said. “However, we don't want to put that onus on them. We are trying to learn as much as we can so that when we deliver our [part]...it'll meet everybody's requirements.”

But in general, there has been a growing awareness and acceptance of additive manufacturing. “I think we’re starting to see that across the whole aerospace industry as well,” Hay added, noting that major OEMs such as Airbus and Boeing have additive parts in service.

“Our customers are very interested,” she said and noted that even UTC chairman Greg Hayes gets asked about it during analyst gatherings. This has filtered down throughout the company. “I think we've really got buy-in; and they're very supportive.”

As to the future of additive, Hay sees tremendous possibility. “Is additive going to be the norm in the next three years? Probably not, but I bet in 10 years it will be, and you’ll ask 'when did that happen?'”