Additive Manufacturing (AM) is a technology that is more than three decades old, and Boeing has been a leader in researching and implementing AM in the aerospace industry since 1997. Metal powder-bed AM technology, however, has only recently begun to demonstrate value for application into critical aerospace products that require high quality and rigorous process and manufacturing control.

Several technological advancements over the past 20 years have led to significant gains in manufacturing production quality and efficiency and find natural synergy with AM due to their shared highly digital natures. The advancements began with the Internet of Things (IoT), and later advanced to create Industry 4.0, both of which enabled the creation of the digital twin and the digital thread across the entire AM value stream: from initial ideation to monitoring the performance of the manufactured component in service.

The Internet of Things (IoT), the interconnection of the internet and sensors that enable the flow of data to and from computing resources, was originally targeted for consumer products. The technology extended to industry and is found in additive manufacturing machines in the form of in-situ monitoring devices and other process sensors intended to flag quality risks. In the future, it will enable real-time feedback to compensate for process deviations.

Industry 4.0 exploited the value of integrated connected systems to increase efficiencies and quality by increasing automation and data exchange in manufacturing ecosystems. In AM, this includes automation of processes such as powder removal, support removal and surface finishing that are otherwise time consuming and manually labor intensive, and can lead to inefficiencies and inherent lack of repeatability. Automation of these and other post processes provides a scalable factory solution and eliminates the brute-force of approach which is neither scalable nor repeatable.

But most importantly, AM provides value not by providing better parts, but by enabling the design of better aerospace products

Before the new tools can be exploited, the requisite framework must be in place, including training the new generation of engineers and retraining the incumbent workforce to design for additive manufacturing. AM is often misrepresented in that it offers infinite design freedom. While the aperture of design possibilities is significantly expanded with AM, it is not without new constraints that need to be deeply understood. AM will not provide benefit when reproducing an exact replica of a part that has been traditionally manufactured unless there is a need to combat issues with obsolescence, delivery or quality. Boeing’s aerospace engineers have found that AM offers the most value when exploiting the full benefits of design optimization, often resulting in components with significantly reduced weight. One method of part optimization includes topology optimization, which places material at the locations required to support the load paths, and removes it from all other locations. AM also provides value by consolidating many parts into one, reducing assembly and volume, and in many cases increasing the quality and durability of the monolithic component. But most importantly, AM provides value not by providing better parts, but by enabling the design of better aerospace products.

The Command Horn – Boeing’s first powder-bed, additive manufactured metal antenna that was launched into space in 2019 on the AMOS-17 communications satellite – was designed for additive manufacturing and did not require a single support structure, making the manufacturing process efficient and robust. Also, what had been a multi-piece part with a hand tuning screw was redesigned into a single part that is more reliable, fully functional, and receives radio frequency signals. The mission-critical additive component, which supports orbit transfer, in-orbit positioning, and powering up of electrical units of the satellite, provided significant cost and part reduction over the traditional counterpart.

As Boeing has looked to maximize the value AM can have on its products and operations, deliberate steps have been taken to integrate AM part designers with product developers so that AM can be focused on systems of parts enabling differentiating product platforms.

Boeing is also capitalizing on the advancements in technology to enable more effective AM designs that take into consideration the entire AM value stream, including how the part will be manufactured (i.e., its build orientation, build layer thickness, etc.) and the post processes (i.e., machining, testing, and inspection), in a holistic approach. At Boeing’s AM Intelligence Center, the digital twin of the AM design process is created by running simulations of the discrete value stream steps. The simulation results are fed back into the design phase so that the optimized design is fabricated, post processed, inspected and tested with high fidelity. Once the final design is achieved and the manufacturing value stream is optimized, it is locked for stable production while continuing to collect and record data to weave into the digital thread, providing another opportunity for optimization through data-driven analytics and feedback loops.

Implementing the recent technological advancements into the additive manufacturing value chain enables Boeing to insert metal additive manufacturing into advanced aerospace platforms that require high quality, repeatability, process control and traceability, and unleashes the opportunity for AM to drive new and differentiating aerospace products that make the world better