US Navy conducts first flight test using 3D-printed, safety-critical parts

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An MV-22B Osprey equipped with a 3-D printed titanium link and fitting inside an engine nacelle maintains a hover during a July 29 demonstration at Patuxent River Naval Air Station(Credit: US Navy)

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A US Navy aircraft with a 3D-printed, flight-critical part has flown for the first time. According to Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR), an MV-22B Osprey carried out a test flight on July 29 at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Maryland, with a titanium link and fitting assembly for the engine nacelle made using 3D additive manufacturing (AM).

The flight was conducted inside the standard V-22 flight performance envelope and MV-22 Project Officer Major Travis Stephenson noticed no difference in performance. This is the first time a Navy plane has flown with a printed part that was necessary for the safe operation of the aircraft.

The US military has been interested in 3D printing for decades, but until now it has been restricted to use as a prototyping tool or in making non-critical parts, such as electrical connector backshells for Trident missiles.

The flight-critical Osprey components were developed and tested at the US Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division in Lakehurst, New Jersey, and built by the Lakehurst and Penn State Applied Research Laboratory.

Aviation Mechanic Cody Schwarz works to install a 3-D printed titanium link and fitting on an MV-22B Osprey engine nacelle(Credit: US Navy)

The components were made from 3D digital files using an additive printing machine that lays down layers of titanium dust, which a laser or electron beam fuses into a slice of the final part. As each layer is fused or sintered, another layer of dust is added and the process repeats until the component is complete. The excess dust is then removed and the part finished and polished.

According to NAVAIR, the success of the flight is only the first step before such printed parts become common. Six more safety-critical parts are to be built and test over the next year for the the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, the H-1 Light Attack helicopter, and the CH-53K King Stallion helicopter. Three parts will be titanium and the other three of stainless steel.

"The flight today is a great first step toward using AM wherever and whenever we need to. It will revolutionize how we repair our aircraft and develop and field new capabilities - AM is a game changer," says Liz McMichael, AM Integrated Product Team lead. "In the last 18 months, we've started to crack the code on using AM safely. We'll be working with V-22 to go from this first flight demonstration to a formal configuration change to use these parts on any V-22 aircraft."

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