C2I 2020 Aerospace & Defence winner: High DRAMA

4 min read

Bringing partners together from across the supply chain, DRAMA has created a platform to drive the adoption of metal additive manufacturing in UK aerospace. Andrew Wade reports.

Given the implications of flying at 35,000 feet above the ground, it’s perhaps no surprise that the aerospace sector usually sticks to the tried and tested. But when game-changing technology like additive manufacturing comes along, rulebooks have to be rewritten and paradigms have to shift. DRAMA, the C2I winner in the aerospace category, has recognised the enormous potential of metal additive manufacturing and is helping to facilitate its uptake across the sector’s entire UK supply chain.

Starting in 2017, the project has been led by the National Centre for Additive Manufacturing at Coventry’s Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC). The big OEMs in aerospace were already investing heavily in additive, but for the true value of the market opportunity to be realised, buy-in was needed right across the UK supply chain. DRAMA has seen a consortium of eight partners (National Centre for Additive Manufacturing, ATS Global, Autodesk, Ansys Granta, Midlands Aerospace Alliance, National Physical Laboratory, Renishaw, University of Birmingham) develop physical and digital assets to fuel metal additive adoption in the UK.

“At the UK’s National Centre for Additive Manufacturing, we have the firm belief that the additive manufacturing revolution will happen more quickly in aerospace when the entire supply chain is empowered with the necessary knowledge and tools,” said DRAMA lead Katy Milne, chief engineer at the National Centre for AM.

“We were looking for industrial and research partners from across the entire manufacturing process chain who were also working to accelerate the rate of additive manufacturing’s adoption, either by developing their tools to be more accessible to more people, as in the case of Autodesk, Ansys Granta and ATS Global, or by giving companies access to equipment through facilities and knowledge as in the case of Renishaw, who have an Additive Solution Centre at New Mills and who share knowledge through their AM guide.”

 

Although only a few dozen AM components have actually flown on production aircraft to date, the number should steadily increase over the coming years. In 2020, BAE Systems announced that up to 30 per cent of its next-generation Tempest fighter will come from additive manufacturing.

Furthermore, a single AM part could be capable of replacing a multitude of components on existing aircraft, helping to dramatically reduce the overall number of components and consolidate assemblies. According to Milne (left), GE is aiming to certify 12 printed components on its Catalyst engine in the near future which will replace 855 parts. With these types of transformative leaps, it’s easy to see how the aerospace supply chain could be left behind.

In light of this, one of DRAMA’s key roles has been the development of a new metal additive manufacturing facility at Coventry’s National Centre for AM. Here, metal powder bed processes are combined with a bespoke digital platform that together enable companies to concurrently optimise their products and manufacturing processes as well as plan their production operations, speeding up overall development of AM products.

“In aerospace, polymer 3D printing has been used for rapid prototyping for many years,” Milne explained. “Metal 3D printing has been used for repair for many years too – welding and powder coating are both additive processes after all!"

“The new facility houses metal powder bed processes, including laser powder bed fusion, electron beam powder bed fusion and metal binder jetting. The National Centre itself also has polymer, ceramic additive capability, large format additive manufacturing and hybrid (additive-subtractive) capability, but in DRAMA we were focussed on building a new facility to house our metal powder bed solutions, where a component or assembly is built in a bed of powder within an enclosed machine.”

Perhaps even more important than access to metal additive hardware has been the development of the digital platform that underpins DRAMA. The centre houses around 20 different machines performing thee different metal additive processes, with various different software packages used across the design and manufacture workflow. Every single product produced has an individual method of manufacture and unique validation requirements.

A member of DRAMA’s Industrial Steering Group estimated that about 30 per cent of a development engineer’s time is spent moving and preparing data between machines, before analysis and decision making can even begin. One of the project’s biggest challenges was creating a digital thread that would allow data to travel seamlessly between the additive machines, reducing labour-intensive workload.

“At our facilities, we have lots of different machines from different suppliers covering the whole process chain,” said Milne. “This means that there are many different types and formats of data, both that coming from machines and entered by our operators.

DRAMA

“Additive manufacturing is a family of processes, rather than one, each with its own process parameters. Whilst more mature or fixed processes - such as electronics manufacturing - have maturing structures or ‘schema’, it might not be possible to shoehorn additive data into one single schema for a while.”

To overcome this problem, DRAMA’s digital team borrowed a technique commonly used for managing big data but which has yet to be widely adopted in manufacturing.

“ We implemented a non-SQL (unstructured) database – the data lake - to grab data enabling us to run new ‘pipelines’ – a series of data processing operations - on all the data we have gathered at any one time,” Milne continued.

“Working in tandem with that we have a configurable workflow management solution called Atlas developed by ATS Global during the project. Ansys Granta developed their MI tool to present, visualise and analyse the additive manufacturing data. The Ansys Granta system does have a schema which is based upon our understanding of what data additive manufacturers may wish to capture and they have developed the software in such a way that that schema can be added to at any time by the user.”

The result is a cutting-edge manufacturing facility coupled with digital tools that are accessible to the entire supply chain. Since its inception, DRAMA has been piloted with 23 supply chain companies as well as the ten companies that formed the Industrial Steering Group. Although the project officially ended in January 2021, Milne and her colleagues are already looking to build on DRAMA’s success.

“We will continue to support the companies that engaged with DRAMA and extending to companies across UK supply chains - and not just in aerospace! - through a range of different mechanisms including training, advisory services and innovation projects,” she said.

“We are scoping our next strategic additive manufacturing supply chain programme right now with the aim of starting it in 2021. In particular, we will be working on validation and qualification of the more mature processes, as well as continuing to do work to accelerate supply chain uptake and the development of technology by UK companies.”

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HVM Catapult is a network of manufacturing research centres established to bridge the gap between business and academia, helping to turn great ideas into reality by providing access to world-class research and development facilities and expertise that would otherwise be out of reach for many businesses in the UK.

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