Lab Spotlight

NAVAIR Marks First Flight With 3-D Printed Safety-Critical Parts

Navy flight demo 160729 N JM744 117e

For the first time, Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) successfully demonstrated a flight-critical aircraft component built using additive manufacturing (AM) techniques.

On July 29, at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., an MV-22B Osprey completed a test flight outfitted with a titanium, 3-D printed link and fitting assembly for the engine nacelle.  This link and fitting assembly is one of four that secure a V-22’s engine nacelle to the primary wing structure and will remain on the aircraft for continued evaluation.

“The flight went great. I never would have known that we had anything different onboard,” said MV-22 Project Officer Maj. Travis Stephenson, who piloted the flight.

AM uses digital 3-D design data to build components in layers of metal, plastic, and other materials. The metal link and fitting assembly for this test event were printed at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Lakehurst, N.J.  Prior to the flight, multiple V-22 components built by Lakehurst and Penn State Applied Research Laboratory were tested at Patuxent River to validate performance.

“The flight today is a great first step toward using AM wherever and whenever we need to. It will revolutionize how we repair our aircraft, and develop and field new capabilities – AM is a game changer,” said Liz McMichael, AM Integrated Product Team lead. “In the last 18 months, we’ve started to crack the code on using AM safely.”

While the Navy has been 3-D printing prototypes and non-flight-critical parts and tools for some time, this demonstration is the first time a Navy aircraft flew with an AM part deemed essential to maintaining safe flight.

Navy officials envision a future where all parts can be made on-demand globally by fleet maintainers and operators, and by industry partners—stocking digital data instead of ordering, stocking, and shipping parts. This demonstration marks an important step toward this future, but there’s more work to do before we see aircraft flying in theater with 3-D printed, safety-critical parts.

Including the V-22 link and fitting assembly, McMichael and her team have identified six additional safety-critical parts they plan to build and test over the next year for three U.S. Marine Corps rotorcraft platforms—the V-22, H-1 and CH-53K.

“Our AM team has done some incredible work in a relatively short period of time—both internally through its production of aircraft components to be used in flight testing and externally through its liaison with industry and other government organizations,” said Vice Adm. Paul A. Grosklags, NAVAIR commander.  “I believe we can ‘lead’ industry…in the development of the AM ‘digital thread,’ from initial design tools all the way to the flight line—securely maintained and managed through the life of an aircraft program.”

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