GE Additive assists GA-ASI in first test flight with metal 3D printed part

General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc (GA-ASI), a U.S. aeronautics company, has completed its first test flight with a metal 3D printed part featured onboard its SkyGuardian Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) system.

GA-ASI’s strategy for scaling metal additive manufacturing across its RPA platforms has been supported by AddWorks, the consultation service of 3D printer OEM GE Additive, since the first half of 2019. 

Working with AddWorks since then, the GA-ASI additive manufacturing team reached a milestone in February 2020 when it performed the company’s first test flight of a metal 3D printed part – a NACA inlet made in Titanium Ti6Al4V – on a SkyGuardian RPA. 

“With the GE Additive AddWorks team, we were able not only to achieve our short term objective of qualifying the NACA inlet, but we also worked together on a number of additional application development and qualification efforts, which are continuing into 2020 and beyond,” commented Elie Yehezkel, senior vice president of Advanced Manufacturing Technologies for GA-ASI.

GA-ASI’s SkyGuardian RPA takes to the sky. Photo via GA-ASI.
GA-ASI’s SkyGuardian RPA takes to the sky. Photo via GA-ASI.

Accelerating the adoption of metal AM

Founded in 1993, GA-ASI is a leading manufacturer of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) systems, radars, electro-optic and related mission systems. It is an affiliate of General Atomics, the U.S. energy and defense corporation. 

GA-ASI already has significant experience with polymer-based 3D printing, and only recently made strides in developing its metal additive manufacturing roadmap. After establishing the required ecosystem to support metal additive manufacturing applications, the GA-ASI AM team identified a series of parts and families of applications with potentially favorable business cases.

The company partnered with GE Additive’s AddWorks team in April 2019, to support the acceleration of metal laser powder bed fusion (LPBF) additive manufacturing at the company, while also strengthening the qualification of both its products and processes. AddWorks provides a step by step consultation service for adopting 3D printing, which begins with defining the business case, building a team, and identifying funding opportunities. 

It has helped the likes of Honda R&D Co. Ltd., in Japan, Korea Aerospace Industries Association (KAIA) and America’s Triumph Group in accelerating their adoption of metal additive manufacturing. AddWorks also worked on producing unique fashion pieces with additive manufacturing for the 2019 Met Gala, worn by British supermodel Jourdan Dunn and Canadian actor Nina Dobrev.

Working with GA-ASI, AddWorks has provided a wide range of engineering consultancy services, such as design for additive (DfAM) training, industrialization process development and materials validation for Titanium and other metals. The objective of the partnership for GA-ASI was to have its first metal 3D printed part take flight within a short time span, and eight months later, it achieved its goal. 

“By adding GE’s prior experience and perspective to the GA-ASI’s internal leadership efforts, the joint team was able to reach the required project momentum in order to meet their milestone,” explains Lauren Thompson, operations project manager at GE Additive AddWorks and part of the team working with GA-ASI.

Elie Yehezkel, Senior Vice President of GA-ASI’s Advanced Manufacturing Technologies attends an executive review in December 2019. Photo via GA-ASI.
Elie Yehezkel, Senior Vice President of GA-ASI’s Advanced Manufacturing Technologies attends an executive review in December 2019. Photo via GA-ASI.

Saving time and costs with metal additive manufacturing 

Amongst its pipeline of suitable components for metal additive manufacturing, GA-ASI identified the NACA inlet to be a strong business case for the first metal 3D-printed part for the SkyGuardian program, after assessing part criticality and program impacts. NACA inlets, developed by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, are a type of submerged air inlet that has found application on many types of air and ground vehicles. Through its consultation service, the AddWorks team supported the process and production readiness of the NACA inlet with improved design and risk reduction. 

“Combining our deep domain expertise of metal additive and best practices from our own additive journey with GA-ASI’s equally deep domain expertise of their RPA applications allowed us to move quickly and work within the timelines we had set,” added Thompson.

Having completed a successful test flight, the NACA inlet will now enter the final qualification phase for the SkyGuardian program. The additive manufactured component offers significant reductions in weight and cost when compared to conventional manufacturing process, which requires three parts of welded formed sheet metal Titanium. 

NACA Inlet case Summary. Photo via GA-ASI.
NACA Inlet case Summary. Photo via GA-ASI.

3D printed as a single piece on a Concept Laser M2 machine, the inlet now delivers a cost reduction per part of more than 90 percent, weight reduction of over 30 percent, and tooling reduction of approximately 85 percent. The GA-ASI team is now applying best practices and knowledge to its wider NACA inlet part family and several other components and subsystems.

GA-ASI has also placed an order for multiple GE Additive Concept Laser M2 Series 5 machines, to be installed at its new Additive Design & Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Poway, California in 2020 alongside its existing polymer 3D printers. Furthermore, the GE Additive AddWorks team has become trusted advisors to GA-ASI and will continue providing consultancy and expert advice as it moves to further scale metal additive across its business. “It is important that we remain at the leading edge of manufacturing technologies for our products and our customers. This acceleration has driven the maturation of our metal AM strategy and has also informed how we plan to approach a much wider application space already in the pipeline,” added Yehezkel.

The nominations for the 2020 3D Printing Industry Awards are now open. Who do you think should make the shortlists for this year’s show? Have your say now. 

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Featured image shows GA-ASI’s SkyGuardian RPA takes to the sky. Photo via GA-ASI.

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