CAD-driven laser forming process may eliminate costly manufacturing practices

August 02, 1999

An initiative to evaluate the fabrication of aircraft structural components using a CAD-driven laser forming process will be pursued by the Naval Air Systems Command, Boeing, and Northrup Grumman. This technology is based upon results achieved under an Office of Naval Research (ONR) Dual Use Science and Technology (DU S&T) program.

Three wing components for the F/A-18 E/F have been selected as candidates for laser forming. They are the inner wing splice fitting, the wing fold fitting, and the drag beam support. The cost savings from laser forming these three components is estimated at $50 million, based on the purchase of 400 aircraft.

Laser forming is a method of layered manufacturing; a process by which complex-shaped components are built layer upon layer without the need for expensive tooling or operator intervention. To create the wing components, titanium powder is injected through a coaxial nozzle into a laser beam and is fused onto a substrate. The substrate is moved back and forth, under computer control, in the horizontal plane, and the component is constructed, layer by layer.

An ONR program to establish a science base for layered manufacturing was initiated in 1995. Until that time, structures fabricated from such processes were only geometric representations, not capable of bearing structural loads. The ONR program moved layered manufacturing into the realm of fabricating actual components for use.

Under the DU S&T program, government and industry partners jointly fund the development of techniques aimed at maintaining the nation's military superiority while also providing a commercial application to support a viable production base. At least 50 percent of the project cost is paid by industry and the remaining share is paid by the Service. The cost sharing arrangement allows engineers and scientists in military departments and industry to leverage scarce S&T funds.

If implemented on an aircraft's structural components, Boeing and Northrop Grumman estimate that laser forming would result in 75 percent reduced delivery time, greater than 20 percent reduced cost for aircraft structural components, reduced material use, and reduced inventory. If all goes as planned, first implementation on production aircraft will be approved in March 2003.
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Office of Naval Research

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