Testing Looms as a Barrier to Growth of 3D Printing in Manufacturing

3D Printing is the Future of Manufacturing

3D Printing, also known as Additive Manufacturing, now accounts for only a small percentage of overall aerospace manufacturing output. But these techniques and processes have a great future. GE makes a jet engine fuel nozzle with additive technology and NASA is testing rocket engine components made the same innovative way.

There Are Obstacles

But before 3D printing and other Additive Manufacturing techniques become a true alternative to traditional manufacturing practices, the industry must overcome a few obstacles. Perhaps foremost among them is the need to develop non-destructive testing (NDT) methods that manufacturers can apply during the creation of each AM product.

Testing has long been an integral part of all manufacturing, from the raw materials that manufacturers shape in a forge, to the blanks that they might turn on a lathe, to final products that workers measure and check for flaws. Many ingenious methods exist for looking inside both components and finished products, including liquid penetration, industrial radiography and electromagnetics. If workers find defects, they fix or scrap the products.

Current 3D Testing is Inefficient

While manufacturers might also apply some of these methods, in part, to additive manufacturing, products produced via 3D printing are often too complicated to see inside with clarity, even with X-rays or electromagnetic tools. More importantly, workers can’t take the products apart for repair if something is wrong. Current testing protocol calls for operators to dismember a percentage of each batch of any item so they can identify flaws in the process. But this method doesn’t guarantee that the other pieces in the batch are free of imperfections.

Non-Destructive Testing (NDT) is Critical

The aerospace industry’s goal is to conduct non-destructive tests during the additive process, almost particle by particle. Such processes would not only help manufacturers spot flaws, but would open the possibility that they could correct imperfections before finishing parts. The industry might need to develop different testing for the various forms of additive manufacturing, which include melting raw materials with lasers or electron beams, or building layers of small particles.

Accelerating the future value of 3D Manufacturing

Sikorsky Innovations is one of the global R&D groups focused on developing a sikorskyrobust approach to testing the output of 3D Manufacturing/Additive Manufacturing processes. According to Bill Harris, a Technical Fellow with Sikorsky Aircraft, “Additive Manufacturing will be restricted to a minor role in aerospace manufacturing until new verification techniques are developed.”

“As we get more and more product produced this way, you’ll need more innovative ways to test and validate product,” he said. “The time to start making this investment is now.”

Investing in Non-Destructive Testing today will reduce 3D Printing Costs tomorrow

Greg Morris, manager of additive manufacturing and business development at GE Aviation, acknowledged that the industry still faces many challenges in finding, preventing and correcting defects in AM products.

Typical physical defects include problems like porosity and lack of fusion. Morris said last year at the Propulsion and Energy Forum of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics that, “right now, inspection processes account for 25 percent of the total cost of parts produced additively.” Those costs, he said, must come down before the technology can gain wider acceptance.

At the University of Manchester in England, researchers at the School of Materials are working to develop tools that would help scientists understand how materials react during additive manufacturing, so that manufacturers can better predict defect tendencies.

The U.S. Navy Calls for Proposals for New NDT Software

And earlier this year, the U.S. Navy, through the Small Business Technology Transfer program, requested proposals for new NDT software and hardware techniques. The goal is to have tests that inspect each layer during the AM process before the next layer is built on top of it, with the final inspection system able to detect common physical defects and also predict properties of the final part.

The stakes are high. As the Navy request for proposals states, “Additive Manufacturing is of wide interest across many industries and throughout the world. Quality control of AM parts is a critical component for facilitating the transition of AM into critical applications. This technology is expected to be of interest to many commercial industries, including aerospace, automotive, and medical.”

You can help Sikorsky Aircraft Accelerate the growth of 3D Printing

3D printing is of strong interest to Sikorsky Aircraft. In fact, Sikorsky is looking for technology from small and large teams around the world to submit 3D Printing technology ideas to Sikorsky Innovations’ 6th Entrepreneurial Challenge. Click here to learn more about the competition and how you might compete for $25,000 in no-strings-attached funding.

About Stamford Innovation Center and the Sikorsky Entrepreneurial Challenge:

Stamford Innovation Center is working closely with Sikorsky Innovations to drive awareness and identify great ideas for submission to the 6th Sikorsky EChallenge. The current challenge is focused on uncovering companies that can provide leading edge thinking and products in critical new areas of technology including Additive Manufacturing, Augmented Reality, Sensors, and Energy Storage/ Management. For more information, visit

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