The Air Force Research Laboratory, or AFRL, hosted a ribbon-cutting ceremony Nov. 9, 2022, to celebrate the reopening of its recently renovated Additive Manufacturing Laboratory, as well as the installation of a novel 3D-printing system for aerospace-grade material
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AFRL provided roughly $6 million in Flex-4 funding to cover the cost of renovations. Flex-4 funds are Department of Defense resources that enable unique capabilities in research laboratories. The improvements to the two lab spaces, and the addition of the new machines, will allow AFRL to reduce costs, shorten research lead times, improve worker safety, increase efficiency and ensure the integrity of manufactured materials.
Historically, aging aerospace parts can be expensive to replace and difficult to source. Provided sufficient material quality can be achieved, additive manufacturing can save time and money by helping to meet demand for replacement parts. At an informal reception following the morning’s events, Pringle noted the unveiling of the new technology was akin to “unwrapping an early Christmas gift.”
“I am very honored to be here, to be a part of this,” Pringle said. “And we are just proud of you. What you all do is critical to our nation.”
Acknowledging the connections between both laboratories and their shared funding source, Pringle added: “It’s about adding new capabilities.”
Prior to cutting a ceremonial ribbon, Phillipson emphasized the facilities’ connection.
“It’s important to note that this ribbon cutting is not just for this room,” Phillipson said, gesturing to the Additive Manufacturing Laboratory. “This event ties together multiple groups in RX.”
Dr. Edwin Schwalbach, research materials engineer in the Metals Development section, and Project Engineer Matthew Geis from the Engineering Services and Support Branch, worked in unison to manage efforts in the Additive Manufacturing Laboratory. Much of the facility work centered around the addition of the new 3D printer to ensure it would fit seamlessly into the newly renovated space. The roughly $2.5 million, 2,100-square-foot project took about four years from inception to completion, Geis said.
America Makes, a prominent public-private partnership for additive manufacturing technology, executed the 3D printer development. Schwalbach collaborated with Adam Hicks, the program manager for Acceleration of Large-Scale Additive Manufacturing, or ALSAM, and Dr. Mark Benedict, AFRL’s Additive Manufacturing lead from the ManTech division, as well as America Makes Program Manager Dr. Dennis Butcher.
“I’ve been involved in the renovation project since John Brausch and former Metals Branch Chief Dan Evans made the original Flex-4 Funding pitch,” Schwalbach said. “One role has been in harmonizing these two parallel efforts to ensure the facility renovation and printing system remain mutually compatible, i.e. power, utilities, safety, printer fit[ting] in the building.”
Schwalbach was closely involved on the technical front to give the new machine the processing capabilities that it needed. The novel 3D printer is based on a widely commercially available system engineered by Concept Laser, a German-based company and a subsidiary of GE Additive Manufacturing. However, it is more of a “souped-up version” than what is typically seen in most Additive Manufacturing labs, Schwalbach added.
AFRL modified the new printer with a “fully open software control system” that allows users to exert more control over how feedstock (powdered alloys such as nickel, titanium and aluminum) is manipulated by laser beams within the printer to produce specific 3D-printed objects. Phillipson said that very few machines of this kind currently exist.
Schwalbach maintains that ensuring researcher safety and well-being was also paramount to the overall endeavor. The team overhauled the existing HVAC system to maximize efficiency and ensure greater air purity by not returning air into the lab and instead venting foreign particles completely outside of the building.
Additionally, the facility’s grounding system was upgraded to eliminate risk of fire ignition, and the lab was retrofitted with a rolling window that will allow visitors and public tour participants to safely view researchers in the lab. The window, Schwalbach notes, was also custom fitted to align with specific fire safety codes.
Schwalbach said he expects the addition of this new technology will allow the Department of the Air Force to print more advanced materials.
“Some of the things that make certain alloys very desirable in terms of their performance often make them really . . . finnicky to process. We now have some extra knobs to help us on this front,” Schwalbach added. “We’ve also modified the system to allow us to use its multiple laser beams in a synchronized way, and . . . to carefully control the thermal environment during printing.”
The in-situ monitoring system added to the new machine allows researchers to print objects that match specifications for form as well as function. Hicks said the specific modifications made to the newly acquired printer system are helping scientists and researchers like Schwalbach tap into new 3D printer capabilities.
“The ALSAM machine opens the ‘black box,’” Hicks said, “which is the intellectual property ingrained in traditional additive manufacturing machines. The producers of commercial machines are all competing to produce superior quality and they hide those details as ‘secret sauce.’ As a part of that, they don’t allow the users of the machines to vary process parameters as much as researchers would like.”
Thanks to the modifications made to the new printer, Schwalbach and his team have been released from these limitations.
“The ALSAM machine will allow [teams] all of the freedoms required by research to make forward progress, while performing that research on production quality hardware,” Hicks said.
Schwalbach added that the new technology opens a lot of doors, as the novel printing system can make a multitude of parts in countless iterations.
“In principle, there’s very little up-front cost in terms of fixed tooling,” Schwalbach said. “This is very attractive to the Air Force.”
The Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) is the primary scientific research and development center for the Department of the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for our air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development. For more information, visit: www.afresearchlab.com.
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