Printing the Future of Helicopters with Bell

3D printing is reshaping the way that the aerospace industry develops and produces aircraft. Bell Helicopters is turning additive manufacturing into a competitive advantage within the world of rotary wing aerospace.

Additive manufacturing (AM) has been touted as a transformational technology for more than a decade, but widespread adoption has been hampered by issues of scale and cost. However, one industry that has already been significantly impacted by the rise of additive manufacturing is aerospace.

Bell helicopter is the world’s leading producer of rotary wing aircraft and has been an industry leader in the adoption of additive manufacturing. In 2004 Bell’s management team formalized a research and development program called XworX which is housed in a hangar in Arlington, TX.[1] The research teams there make heavy use of additive manufacturing to allow for rapid prototyping. The technology enables the teams to create parts far faster than with subtractive processes because modification can be made quickly to designs and the parts can be created on the spot. One of Bell’s core products, the Osprey “tilt-rotor” helicopter, was recently undergoing an experimental re-design. XworX engineers were able to utilize a fused deposition modeling system produced by Fortus.[2] The machine was able to produce parts in just two and a half days that would have taken six weeks to produce from typical aluminum casts.

Bell uses a rotational system for XworX so that engineers from throughout the company are exposed to the technology and rapid prototyping environment. This will ensure that when additive manufacturing technology advances the firm will have a competitive advantage in their knowledge base. One of the issues that is holding back advancement of AM is that if 3D printing cannot cost-effectively create a piece at scale for the aircraft then whatever the engineers design using additive technology for prototyping must be able to be produced with subtractive technology at scale.

In the coming years one of the more exciting trends in aerospace AM will be the widespread adoption of parts that cannot be built with subtractive technologies. 3D printers have the capability to produce intricate sub-structures that result in materials with different heat transfer and aerodynamic properties than previously possible. A new type of printing known as Multi-Material Additive Manufacturing (MM-AM) allows for a single machine to produce printed parts that have different types of metals in gradients throughout the piece.[3] Many pieces in aerospace design are subject to extremely high temperature and the increased ability to effect heat transfer and create porous metallic materials will allow for significant advancement in design.

Bell’s management team is looking at leveraging these advances to produce more and more components with additive technology. They have developed a partnership with Harvest Technologies and are now beginning to work printed pieces into their commercial aircraft rather than just in the prototyping stage.[4] Currently they are commercially producing pieces for the aircraft’s Environmental Control System with Harvest, but over the next few years Bell is hoping to expand to additive production in other internal components of the helicopter.

Looking forward, I would suggest that Bell’s management team invest in developing a Hybrid Additive Manufacturing (HAM) capacity to the XworX plant. HAM combines elements of additive and subtractive manufacturing to provide the benefit of reduced materials waste that additive manufacturing provides with the precision of subtractive manufacturing.[5] A single machine now has the ability to create a component through additive means and then lathe and mill the piece in the same location or it could mill away a damaged portion of piece and then additively restore it to original specifications. As it relates to Bell this technology could be used to repair worn parts rather than replacing them. One of Bell’s key competitive advantages in the market place is its customer service and refurbishment programs. The military, a major source of revenues, often sends helicopters back to Bell for testing, analysis, and repair. The ability to place a worn or damaged piece in a HAM enabled machine would cut down significantly on material waste and eliminate the need to make forecasting decisions and wait for lags in its supply chain.

Some of the key questions remaining in further adoption of additive manufacturing center around the remaining challenges in additive design. Current laws and properties in physics such as Hooke’s Law, Poisson’s ration, and other key properties used by engineers do not hold for many additively developed materials because of the differences in the internal structures that can be created.[6] Whether or not organizations like Bell should lead the way in conducting this research or simply wait and adopt new advances as they become market-ready is a question management will have to grapple with.  (746 Words)

 

 

 

[1] AIN Online, “Inside Bell’s Secret XworX,” https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/aviation-international-news/2012-04-03/inside-bells-secret-xworx, accessed November 2018.

 

[2] Javelin, “Stratasys FDM 3D Printers Help Bell Helicopters Build Quality Prototypes,” https://www.javelin-tech.com/blog/2015/01/stratasys-fdm-3d-printers-help-bell-helicopter/, accessed November 2018.

 

[3] Source: Science Direct, “Additive manufacturing of multi-material structures,” Materials Science & Engineering., 2018, Amit Bandyopadhyay, accessed November 2018.

 

 

[4] 3D Printing Industry, “EOS Technology Used to 3D Print Flight-Certified Hardware for Bell Helicopter,” https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/eos-technology-used-to-3d-print-flight-certified-hardware-for-bell-helicopter-38136/, accessed November 2018.

 

[5] Source: Science Direct, “Additive manufacturing of multi-material structures,” Materials Science & Engineering., 2018, Amit Bandyopadhyay, accessed November 2018.

 

 

[6] Source: Science Direct, “Additive Design and Manufacturing of Jet Engine Parts,” Engineering., 2017, Pinlian Han Department of Mechanics and Aerospace Engineering, accessed November 2018.

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8 thoughts on “Printing the Future of Helicopters with Bell

  1. Really interesting – and shockingly technical – overview of additive manufacturing / 3D printing in the aerospace sector.

    Questions that come to mind are: A) is there something specific about military-facing companies that make additive manufacturing particularly attractive (e.g., subsidized R&D budgets, higher demand for advanced tech) or does the same opportunity exist for all aerospace firms? B) Assuming that these technologies represent competitive advantages, that there are sufficient end-users willing to pay for the technology, and that new technology is patentable, why wouldn’t Bell continue to invest in developing technologies?

  2. Ryan, this is great – was not expecting this to exist within the helicopter industry. You raise some really interesting issues around the feasibility with regard to the physical properties of the materials being formed. I’d be particularly keen to understand more about how these parts impact reliability as well – clearly paramount in this mode where there aren’t good options if parts fail in the air!

  3. Ryan, awesome article regarding additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry. As a frequent passenger aboard ospreys in my past life, I’m somewhat aware of the limitations and struggles with operating and maintaining these platforms. I think the current limitations of additive manufacturing you captured in the final paragraph will be difficult to overcome and will limit the employment of this technology in the aerospace industry. Internal composition of materials is crucial when building critical components where the consequences of failure are disastrous. Reliance on low weight to lift ratios further complicate the issue. Hopefully advances in X-ray and CT technology combined with advances in the AM process will mitigate these issues and reduce the exorbitant costs found in the industry.

  4. Thanks Ryan for sharing this! It’s really exciting to see an example of where additive manufacturing is actually opening up new opportunities (e.g., materials that weren’t previously possible, refurbishing old helicopters) instead of just replacing old ways of doing things as an advertising gimmick. However, as you mentioned, it seems to be mostly used for prototyping at this stage. I wonder how additive manufacturing actually fits into massive scale assembly in the future. Will it be mostly used in a job shop set up for limited component subassembly? Or can it actually replace big parts of traditional assembly lines?

  5. Great article on an interesting topic! I loved reading about the rotational system to expose more engineers at the company to the technology. So many organizations could benefit from systems like this because ideas can flow two ways when working with new technologies. As a previous pilot, I understand the need to balance innovation with the risk aversion that is necessary in aviation. I want the lightest, strongest, most durable aircraft possible but I don’t want to be the guinea pig who tests the new technology. Do they have adequate systems in place to bridge that gap without stifling innovation?

    It’s also interesting to read about the possibility of refurbishing parts versus replacing. Hopefully this helps bring costs down in aviation to make it more accessible. It would also be interesting to see how portable this technology could be made. Could Bell setup AM on a ship or in the battlefield? Supply lines have turned the tides of battles and wars in the past. Could front line units always have spare parts available. It is promising technology that I hope is implemented sooner than later.

  6. Super interesting article! The author does a great job in describing the attributes and limitations of the current 3D printing technology in Bell’s production process. It really made me think about how 3D printing allows you to prototype quickly many different parts of a helicopter, but personally I hadn’t though about the limitations of scale. Additive manufacturing technology needs to catch up in order to meet the issue of scale and mass production, and I think this is where this technology is headed.

  7. Great article Ryan — in the last two years I spent a lot of time following additive and the question you raised about what Bell should do is spot on and representative of very similar questions many strategics are always considering: should they invest in technology development and/or bring it in-house? Or should they just wait it out and wait until the tech is proven? There are lots of pros and cons, but ultimately what I’ve seen happen frequently is that companies are willing to deploy capital into tech development as long as they can reap exclusive rewards if the development is successful. Few companies have an appetite to fund advancements that could also benefit their competitors, so typically you see a lot of exclusive licensing requests in exchange for capital. Again, great article!

  8. Fascinating read. Thank you!
    I was particularly surprised by how specific laws and properties in physics that limit common manufacturing processes do not apply to additive technologies. Also, the implications that this type of techniques could have on the supply chain for industries that operate on remote areas are invaluable. For example, Oil & Gas companies commonly operate in relatively inaccessible regions of the emerging world where is challenging to re-stock the inventory of spare parts used by mission critical machinery. As a result, companies often incur in significant investments in inventory or, worst yet, cost overruns caused by machines that are unable to operate due to lack of replacement parts. Additive technologies such as the one used Bell Helicopter could help solve this situation.

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