Sometimes it takes a while for new manufacturing technologies to take off. After about 10 years, it looks like an electron beam material deposition technology might be heading down the runway, destined for full commercialization.
That feeling was prevalent among the workers at Sciaky Inc., Chicago, on April 12. The company hosted a ceremony at its South Side manufacturing campus to celebrate the announcement of a U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) Mentor-Protégé agreement between itself and Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., manufacturer of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Under this type of agreement, the DOD matches up small businesses that have the potential to shine as prime or subcontractors to federal agencies and their partners with larger corporations that already act in this type of role. In this case, Lockheed, which is already involved in six Mentor-Protégé agreements, will give Sciaky management and manufacturing assistance as it looks to commercialize its Electron Beam Direct Manufacturing (EBDM) technology, moving it from a prototyping stage to full-blown production of aerospace parts.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is indeed a game-changer," said Stephen O’Bryan, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics vice president, F-35 program integration and business development, about Sciaky's technology.
Sciaky is no stranger to electron beam welding, having been involved with the technology since the late 1950s. However, it's only been in the last 10 years or so that the company's researchers have been working with material deposition, also known as direct digital manufacturing in the defense industry.
EBDM uses the same vacuum chamber environment as electron beam welding and has a fully articulated head from which the electron beam emanates. The head also has a wire feeder that feeds a wire into the electron beam and melts the wire into a bead. The head then builds bead upon bead—or layer upon layer—creating a 3-D, near-net shape, as Sciaky officials describe it, that is then sent for machining to achieve the final shape defined by the original 3-D model.
The whole EBDM effort really took a giant step forward after Sciaky was awarded two Phase II Small Business Innovation Research projects from the U.S. Air Force, according to Chris Cornelius, director of federal business development for Phillips Service Industries Inc., Sciaky's parent company. That gave Sciaky the ability to develop an adaptive closed-loop process that takes into account the dynamic nature of manufacturing a 3-D object; in other words, the EBDM process can alter its performance parameters—such as electron beam power—during the manufacturing process, all without human intervention.
Meanwhile, Lockheed is anxious to apply the technology to the fabrication of titanium parts for the F-35. The company sees it as a major tool in dramatically reducing the cost of manufacturing parts without sacrificing quality.
"This type of agreement makes sure that our war fighters are equipped with the best that industry has to offer," said Tom Simmons, Lockheed's vice president, supply chain management.
As an example, the Lockheed officials pointed to the flaperon spar on the F-35 wing. The titanium part is typically a forging. Using the EBDM process instead to make the part, engineers think they can save about $100 million over the lifetime of the aircraft when compared to the previously used manufacturing method.
Similar savings can be expected as the technology is applied to other titanium parts. Lockheed won't be wasting as much titanium, especially for those parts that start off as titanium billets before being shaped in a machining center, because the parts will require much less material. When looking at the projected production run of more than 3,000 fighter jets, O'Bryan said the savings could climb into the hundreds of millions.
Robert Salo, a Sciaky sales manager, said the company laid down 13,000 lbs. of titanium deposition last year, so that Lockheed could create 1,500 metallurgical coupons for testing. Seventy-five percent of the testing is complete, and everything looks good in terms of the EBDM process being able to produce titanium parts that meet all project qualifications. In two to three months, the testing should be complete, he added.
That's when the project has the potential to really take off. O'Bryan said Sciaky might see its 50-person company triple in size, as it grows into the role of an licensor of its technology, a manufacturer of EBDM equipment, and a producer of parts. Cornelius added that the aerospace industry may be just the beginning, as Sciaky has targeted more than 30 other industries for further commercialization of its material deposition technology.