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NASA Takes Advanced Manufacturing to the Next Level

Testing Advanced composites at LaRC


After languishing for many years, manufacturing is on the fast track in the U.S., and a number of new national programs and incentives are driving technology to improve manufacturing. One key objective is “creating and supporting national and regional public-private, government-industry-academic partnerships to accelerate investment in and deployment of advanced manufacturing technologies.”

Researchers and engineers at NASA are developing highly specialized, advanced materials, manufacturing technologies and techniques for agency aerospace missions. Their knowledge and expertise can transfer to address today’s manufacturing challenges and push the industry to a new level.

From the Largest to the Smallest

Additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, is used to prototype structures at all ten NASA centers. The process successively adds thin layers of material to build up an object in three dimensions based on a computer design.

At Marshall Space Flight Center, engineers conduct large-scale aerospace manufacturing research, development, and innovation in the National Center for Advanced

Manufacturing Rapid Prototyping Facility. By using and testing 3D printing for the engine parts of NASA’s new Space Launch System (SLS), they’re pushing the limits of the process. As a result, they’re also learning how to reduce production times from months to weeks, which will greatly benefit both NASA and industry.

"We hope to reduce by a factor of 10," said John Vickers, assistant manager of Marshall’s Materials and Processes Laboratory.

At Langley Research Center, designers and engineers can use over 15 different types of additive manufacturing systems for prototyping. From selective laser melting that builds parts layer-by-layer with metal powder, and a laser to a system that builds 3D models with up to 14 different materials in a single job, the researchers are exploring best practices for prototyping.

A Langley-developed additive manufacturing process, the Electron Beam Free Form Fabrication (EBF3) uses an electron beam gun, a dual wire feed, and computer controls. Today, a NASA partner is using EBF3 to build parts for fighter aircraft. The technology is also available for licensing, and the team is currently researching how to advance it even further.

Advanced Composites and Processes

Across the country, there’s a critical need for stronger, lightweight materials with high performance, and advanced composites may be the answer.

At Langley, a team is investigating how to synthesize, characterize, and develop these materials. According to Brian Jensen, senior researcher for advanced materials, “At any given time, we work on open projects across the Center with a critical mass of experts to advance composite technologies.”

Their work will help certify new materials, improve their performance, shorten the time to market, and lower manufacturing costs. They are also learning how to develop the best manufacturing practices.

“We’re hoping to improve the part of manufacturing that actually produces the materials. We are making contributions to how they will manufacture these materials. What we learn will be available to industry,” said Brian Grimsley, another Langley composite researcher.

Enter “ISAAC”

By early 2015, Langley will have a new manufacturing capability—the “Integrated Structural Assembly of Advanced Composites (ISAAC)," a robot-based system.

Researchers throughout NASA will work with their partners to evaluate next-generation composite materials, processes, structural concepts, manufacturing, and inspection techniques.

“What they learn will improve understanding of the impact of manufacturing processes on the overall capability of composite structures, and further defines the next wave of academic research for composite manufacturing,” said Chauncey Wu of Langley’s Structural Mechanics and Concepts Branch.

Advancing Nanotechnology

“We are working to understand how we take a material like carbon nanotubes, in sheets or yarns, and make it into structures,” said Mia Siochi, a research materials engineer.

Langley is the only NASA center with a pre-preg machine, which can create strong, bonded, woven composite to create nanomaterials. “This gives us an advantage when synthesizing and identifying new materials,” said Roberto Cano, another research materials engineer.

By using a multidisciplinary approach, the researchers want to shorten the development time of the technologies so they make it to market faster.

“On the team, we have people going from computational modeling, to synthesis, processing, characterization, structural design, structural analysis, systems analysis; and we’re tied into manufacturers so that we can provide guidance on what can be tweaked to make materials to the necessary requirements,” Siochi said.

Working With Virginia

Langley’s research and development in materials and manufacturing will play a key role in Virginia’s Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM). As a partner in CCAM, center scientists will collaborate with other partners from industry, the University of Virginia, Virginia State University, Virginia Tech, and CCAM.

“NASA inventions and technologies have changed history and the products we use every day,” said Dr. Michael Beffel, CCAM interim president and executive director. “CCAM research will benefit from the agency’s longstanding pursuit of innovation.”


By exploring the full cycle of manufacturing from design to testing to manufacturing, researchers across NASA are playing a role in laying the groundwork for advanced manufacturing. Their technologies and processes can be used to move industry to better performance processes and systems.

This article provides highlights from just a few NASA centers. To learn more, please connect with the technology transfer offices listed at http://www.nasa.gov/offices/oct/tech_transfer/#.UymqUSR9lvs.

To learn more about NASA Langley advanced materials and processes that are available for licensing, please visit The Technology Gateway.

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