Aerospace AMAviationDefenseDrones/UAV

Beehive Industries fires up new 3D printed jet engine in record time

From idea to test cell in 13 months: the company says the time of AM has arrived

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Beehive Industries‘ new turbojet demonstrator was fired up, for the first time, in a custom-built test cell at the company’s HQ in Denver. The American manufacturer of aerospace and defense, a heavy user of AM, said that this significant milestone was achieved in record time, going from a clean sheet design concept just 16 months ago, to fully assembled in the test cell 13 months later, and to being officially ignited and running under its own power for the first time this past week.

According to Beehive Industries’ President and GM Gordie Follin, there’s no better time to work in American manufacturing, especially additive manufacturing. Follin, who has designed and built jet engines for more than 20 years, sees additive manufacturing as a unique opportunity to leverage new technology to its fullest extent. He believes it can unlock the future of new propulsion systems.

“I’ve worked in jet engines my whole career—on the engineering side, on the project management side, and now developing new 3D printed engines,” he said in an interview published on the Beehive site. “At Beehive, I saw a unique opportunity to take additive manufacturing and apply it for defense purposes, developing a new propulsion system for unmanned aircraft, including munitions and drones.

Beehive Industries fires up new 3D printed jet engine in record time, from idea to test in 16 months: the time of AM has arrived
Beehive Industries’ new turbojet demonstrator was fired up, for the first time, at the company’s HQ in Denver, going from a clean sheet design concept in just 16 months.

The idea behind Beehive Industries is to bring together experts who form a bridge between additive manufacturing and propulsion, with a wealth of traditional jet engine design experience across all levels of the organization. Through both acquisitions and organic growth, Beehive has built deep additive manufacturing expertise and capabilities

The company established a 100% U.S.-based vertically integrated supply chain, with close to 95% of design, testing and manufacturing done in-house. Its main focus is on purpose-designed unmanned applications, such as drones. Beehive’s jet engine can offer 10 to 30% better performance, at 50% of the cost, in half the design and manufacturing time.

Another interesting aspect of Beehive Industries is the company’s additive-first approach. “Consider that the greatest difference between additive and conventional manufacturing is time,” Follin explained. “Almost any additive design process will be faster. At Beehive, our process from concept to jet engine tests is about 14 months. That’s close to half the time, or even a third of the time, as conventional jet engine manufacturing.”

This is possible because Beehive Industries focuses mainly on unmanned systems, which have different requirements than commercial aviation. The component testing phase can be reached much faster, and the team can mature the design very quickly. For example, thanks to additive manufacturing they completed engine component testing and controls testing on the BTJ-500 jet engine in less than 3 months instead of 14 months. By the time Beehive reaches engine tests, the project is on the 5th or 6th revision. With conventional manufacturing, it would be on version 2 at the most.

Testing in the USA

Additive manufacturing enables design validation through actual testing versus analysis, which can be slower and not necessarily as accurate. Test data doesn’t lie. Additive allows testing to begin much sooner, which helps to achieve final designs faster. “At Beehive, we use additive to accelerate the process. We also deploy additive to print instrumentation, which provides additional speed and flexibility benefits. When you can print the instrumentation needed for testing, or print the instrumentation into the part, you can tweak the design very quickly,” Follin explained.

In addition, AM enables a U.S.-based manufacturer to literally bring metal powder in one door of their facility and take a finished product out the other door. This means that Beehive’s engines can be almost entirely manufactured within a single facility, by leveraging consolidated parts and simplified engine design. This results in fewer suppliers, and with those suppliers based in the U.S. there is less chance of disruption.

“Consider that each part of an engine is something that could go wrong. So, the fewer dependencies that you have within a global network, the more secure your supply chain. Additive manufacturing requires fewer parts, which de-escalates risk at scale,” Follin said.

Beehive’s Denver headquarters is home to two custom-built engine test cells. Development for this infrastructure began concurrently with the jet engine demonstrator and was completed earlier this year.

Another unsung benefit of additive manufacturing for companies like Beehive Industries is that it’s forward deployable. Once you lock in the design and then print and test successfully, it’s relatively easy to both scale and physically move manufacturing. Unlike conventional manufacturing, which relies on foundries and specialized labor, additive manufacturing is not tied to a specific facility or location. Think of it as rapidly moving the supply chain. Unlike a foundry, it’s comparatively easy to move printers and metal powders.

Follin argues that AM is also rapidly scalable. Beehive can scale up the manufacturing of our engines quickly. For example, in a small portion of just one of Beehive’s three facilities, it’s possible to manufacture close to 2,500 engines per year.

“By bringing together jet engine and additive manufacturing expertise, focusing on unmanned applications, and building a vertically integrated supply chain, we believe we’re building the right process for the right application at the right time,” Follin said, “The result is a best-in-class solution for unmanned aerial systems. We’re continuing to innovate and accelerate development, while also partnering with our customers to develop bespoke jet engines that harness the full potential of additive manufacturing.”

Beehive Industries fires up new 3D printed jet engine in record time, from idea to test in 16 months: the time of AM has arrived Using AM for aerospace foundry cores

While Beehive is leading in terms of using metal AM for direct part production, in 2021 the company also invested to acquire its foundry partner, Eagle Engineered Solutions, a leading global provider of 3D printed ceramic cores, waxes, and patterns for the metal casting, investment casting, and sand foundry industries.

“Our mission is to make industry-defining advancements, and in turn, provide the strength, innovation, and tools to reindustrialize America,” said Beehive Industries Chief Executive Officer Mohammad Ehteshami. “Eagle Engineered Solutions is an American-owned and operated company, specializing in advanced technology within a rapidly growing market. This purchase supports not just our company’s growth, but our country’s future competitive advantage as well.

“We’re in the business of making impossible designs possible,” Ehteshami continued. “Eagle’s direct print ceramic core technology helps customers realize extremely complex designs, facilitating the production of smaller, more efficient, and affordable engine systems.”

Eagle now operates as part of Beehive Industries’ Engineered Solutions division, where the team works to enhance and scale its ability to provide solutions to the foundries. Eagle’s manufacturing and production facility in Mt. Vernon, Ohio, with over 35 employees and 40 3D printers also helps facilitate programs currently within Beehive Industries’ innovation incubator, Innovation Technologies.

3D printed ceramic cores.

“The future of manufacturing in America is not based on output, but our ability to solve complex problems quickly and implement new innovations at mass scale,” Ehteshami said. “We’re combining Eagle’s technology with our skills and resources to move quickly, scalably, and efficiently. We’re extremely excited by both the near-term and long-term applications enabled by this acquisition.”

Transitioning to AM

For Beehive Industries, the transition from castings and forgings to additive manufacturing offers a wealth of opportunities for the U.S. manufacturing sector. For its Chief Manufacturing Technology Officer Jonaaron Jones, additive manufacturing is the future of American manufacturing.

Jones’ primary focus is supporting customers by delivering manufacturing solutions and guidance for the production and design teams. There’s also a research and development aspect to his work because, for many customers, this is their initial use of additive manufacturing. Jones’ team works in lockstep with them to identify improvements that translate into shorter lead times, improved performance, and higher quality parts.

Beehive is also developing printable superalloys to meet the need for enhanced capabilities and performance. For most customer applications, additive manufacturers use more traditional materials like nickel alloys 718 and 625, which are highly weldable and easier to work with. However, these traditional alloys have limitations, including strength and heat resistance. To address these limitations, Beehive is adapting new superalloys for use in the additive manufacturing processes.

“At Beehive, we bring together experts and specialists who might otherwise be siloed; we have a strong team that includes academic metallurgists, a range of engineering specialists, and others who bring a unique understanding or approach. We bring this diversity of experiences and perspectives together in a collaborative setting and encourage them to continuously test/print material samples,” Jones said. We’re working with alloys that exist on the border of higher performance and challenging weldability. Additively manufactured parts are also closer to being usable right out of the printer, so the process is very different. Because of the unique way we process materials with additive manufacturing, we can melt and cool them very quickly. As a result, we can tailor microstructures and potentially suppress their tendency to crack. This opens the door to a new and better additively printed superalloy.”

The result, so far, is the release of three new superalloys. One is Mar-M 509, which several Beehive customers are using today, followed by Inconel 939 and Mar-M 247. This last one was originally an internal challenge and Jones points out how the ability to now use it in AM is a reflection of Beehive’s unrelenting drive to find solutions through traditional metallurgy and through innovative ideas.

He expects that the most benefits of AM will be reaped when industries start designing to take advantage of additive manufacturing, citing Beehive’s jet engines as a clear example of that. They were designed from the outset to take advantage of the benefits offered by additive manufacturing, rendering them significantly different from traditional jet engines. There is no other way to manufacture most of Beehive’s engine components other than additive manufacturing.

Beehive Industries fires up new 3D printed jet engine in record time, from idea to test in 16 months: the time of AM has arrived Reaching the end-user base

Another acquisition completed in 2021, Volunteer Aerospace, is helping Beehive Industries reach
companies like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and NASA as a full-service 3D printing provider.

Volunteer Aerospace is a Tennessee-based additive and advanced manufacturing provider. “Our vision is to reindustrialize America, and part of that means investing in the next generation of American manufacturing,” said Beehive Industries’ Mohammad Ehteshami. “Volunteer Aerospace is at the forefront of key additive and advanced manufacturing methods and a testament to what a strong and self-sufficient future looks like for this country.”

Advanced manufacturing, the rapid transfer of science and technology into production activities, is an increasingly important discipline within the manufacturing world. Volunteer’s business model is based on providing full-service manufacturing and innovation development for aerospace, defense, and adjacent markets, using tools such as 3D printing and adaptive strategy. The company has made a name for itself delivering mission-critical parts for satellites, rockets, helicopters, and more, and continues to do so as part of the Beehive Industries Advanced Manufacturing division. Many of these giants of the aerospace industry need to increase their use of AM.

The future potential of AM in aerospace

According to Jones, the DfAM approach is now unlocking all kinds of potential. Until recently, much of the demand for additive manufacturing was printing a part originally designed for castings and forgings. It was seen only as a go-to option when there was urgency. As manufacturers see the benefit of the speed that AM offers, they also realize they are missing out on potential performance gains as well. The conclusion most reached is that additive manufacturing can offer them much more.

Jones believes that we’re now entering a new phase in which companies are exploring how to design for additive manufacturing and take advantage of new materials, in addition to the speed of design and production. There are a lot of factors coming into play that are triggering this shift. In some cases, it’s seeing the value of additive manufacturing proven out in other industries. There may also be pain points that drive more decision-making toward additive manufacturing. For example as a way to address parts shortages or delays.

The education of engineers will also make an impact and the Department of Defense’s purchasing cycles may also accelerate the shift. “For example, a recent helicopter competition encouraged the use of new technologies, especially additive manufacturing,” Jones revelaed. “One company reached out to Beehive to integrate additively manufactured parts into their design. As a result, they compressed a two-year procurement cycle into one, providing them with a competitive edge.”

Jones also points out that certification is one of the biggest hurdles to wider adoption: “Currently, there isn’t a plethora of well-understood, well-documented industry standards. But, we’re making significant and rapid progress. The Department of Defense is taking a leadership role in establishing policy and guidance, which will flow down to the manufacturing base, establishing a MIL-SPEC that’s all-inclusive. This is important work that will contribute to the continued adoption of additive manufacturing in the American manufacturing sector and beyond.

“Additive manufacturing is still young. While many manufacturers have embraced its potential, we are at the beginning of a wave of innovation. I anticipate that the development of industry-specific materials and specifications will accelerate the use of additive manufacturing very soon, and a new age of innovation will follow,” Jones concluded.


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