Aerospace AMDefenseIndustrial Additive Manufacturing

Boeing’s new DEFIANT X combat helicopter is a mean son of AM

It will replace the Black Hawk

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In 2018, Lockheed Martin’s Technical Fellow Manufacturing Technology Bill Harris gave a talk about how rotorcraft companies were lagging aerospace peers in the use of additive manufacturing to make their products. Two years later, Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are presenting the DEFIANT X, possibly the most advanced military helicopter ever built. Just a coincidence?

The technology – he said – has repeatedly demonstrated reduced lead times and costs while increasing product performance and functionality in nearly every industry. Aerospace is no exception; almost daily new approaches and product insertions are touted that will transform how complex, high technology, and high-performance systems produced by this segment are produced and sustained.

Mr. Harris is a Lockheed Martin Fellow specializing in Manufacturing Technology. He works in the Rotary Mission Systems (RMS) business area and had been with Sikorsky Aircraft for 34 years at the time. There, he has led a variety of domestic and international manufacturing technology programs related to sand casting, friction stir welding, high-speed machining, and additive manufacturing.

Sikorsky, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are presenting the DEFIANT X

As Harris noted, the aerospace segment shows wide variations in the degree of technology transition depending on the product. For example, satellite manufacturers are on a pace to have more than 75% of their product content 3D printed on a production basis. NASA and their suppliers are producing major components of metal rocket engines by printing. Jet engine suppliers are commencing mass production of high volume, critical components for both new and legacy products. Manufacturers of fixed-wing aircraft are announcing the adoption of this technology for a wider range of materials and product forms, particularly in flight or performance-critical applications. The product with the least amount of published insertion is rotorcraft. In his presentation, Harris discussed, from a Sikorsky perspective, the reasons why and a vision of how this technology will be introduced in the future.

The briefing covered factors specific to rotorcraft driving process selection such as performance spectrum, material properties, qualification, supply chain, cost, delivery, and customer satisfaction. Current and planned additive manufacturing implementations accomplished by Sikorsky were discussed and the direction expected for future investments.

Fast forward two years and Sikorsky is presenting the DEFIANT X, its most advanced copter ever, with a revolutionary air assault capability for future vertical lift. The DEFIANT X is an advanced utility helicopter and air assault weapon system that can fly low and fast, land quickly, deliver soldiers to the objective area (known as the “X”) and get out — all while evading the enemy in complex terrain. It’s an agile, maneuverable aircraft that flies twice as far and twice as fast as the Black Hawk helicopter it will replace — and sits in the same operational footprint.

DEFIANT X builds on the handling qualities and transformational capabilities proven by SB>1 DEFIANT, a Sikorsky-Boeing technology demonstrator helping to inform the U.S. Army’s future vertical lift requirements. The helicopter has been purposefully designed for the U.S. Army’s Future Long Range Air Assault competition, a top modernization priority, and will revolutionize the way the Army meets threats in 2035 and beyond.

Sikorsky is familiarizing with the digitalization of manufacturing and AM for replacement parts on-demand and obsolescence management. Over the past year, the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command began collaborating with a team from Wichita State University to implement digital twin technology for the upkeep and maintenance of its aging Black Hawk helicopter fleet. The partnership, which also includes the National Institute for Aviation Research (NIAR), consists of producing a virtual model of the UH-60L Black Hawk helicopter using 3D scanning technologies.

In the scanning process, the military helicopter is completely disassembled, part by part, so that each component can be captured and stored as a digital twin. Having a virtual database of these parts will make it easier to source replacement parts for the aging fleet, using on-demand processes like additive manufacturing, for instance.

“At Sikorsky, a Lockheed Martin company, 3D printer connectivity is a foundational tool enabling the real-time management of production requirements locally and across the enterprise,” said Christopher Wiegman, Digital Transformation Engineering Manager, about introducing the Link3D AMWatch software system for AM part quality control in the company’s production workflows. “The ability to have real-time insight into and management of current production print queues is critical to meeting our customer objectives. The local and centralized enterprise dashboards with Lockheed Martin’s Intelligent Factory Framework and Link3D’s machine connectivity allows utilization management of Lockheed Martin’s extensive additive investment.”

Black Hawk digital twin

The Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk was first used by the U.S. Army in 1979 and was followed by other Black Hawk models, the Lima and Mike. The Lima has been out of production for 15 years now, and many of its parts date back to about 40 years. As one can imagine, finding spare or replacement parts for the out-of-production aircraft can present certain challenges. The U.S. Army hopes that digital twin technology can streamline the production of replacement parts so that the helicopter workhorses can remain in service.

Together, Sikorsky and Boeing have built 90 percent of the U.S. Army’s current military rotorcraft and have totaled more than 15 million flight hours. As the DEFIANT X makes it into production, AM processes will have bene further fine-tuned for higher productivity, leveraging the team’s expertise in advanced manufacturing, testing and producing cutting-edge rotorcraft configurations. The DEFIANT X will be the fastest, most maneuverable and most survivable military helicopter in history. And AM is likely going to play a part in delivering it into reality.


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Davide Sher

Since 2002, Davide has built up extensive experience as a technology journalist, market analyst and consultant for the additive manufacturing industry. Born in Milan, Italy, he spent 12 years in the United States, where he completed his studies at SUNY USB. As a journalist covering the tech and videogame industry for over 10 years, he began covering the AM industry in 2013, first as an international journalist and subsequently as a market analyst, focusing on the additive manufacturing industry and relative vertical markets. In 2016 he co-founded London-based VoxelMatters. Today the company publishes the leading news and insights websites and, as well as VoxelMatters Directory, the largest global directory of companies in the additive manufacturing industry.

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