Lockheed A2100 3D 3-D printing
Brian O’Connor, vice president of production operations for Lockheed Martin Space Systems, explaining how the company wants to use new manufacturing techniques including 3D printing and robotics to halve the time needed to build a satellite. Credit: SpaceNews

LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration is drafting a comprehensive plan for grappling with the aerospace industry’s rapid adoption of additive manufacturing.

“Three to four years ago, none of my peers believed we would see additive manufacturing of safety-critical parts,” Michael Gorelik, Federal Aviation Administration chief scientific and technical adviser for fatigue and damage tolerance, said Oct. 19 at the Additive Aerospace conference here. “We don’t have them yet, but based on the leading indicators I see it’s coming and it’s coming fairly fast.”

In late September, an FAA team submitted a draft Additive Manufacturing Strategic Roadmap to managers at the agency’s headquarters for review. The document recommends steps the agency will need to take in the next seven to eight years to address additive manufacturing from a regulatory standpoint, including certification policies, manufacturing policies and maintenance policies. The plan also addresses the need for additional research and development as well as workforce education and training.

The agency underwent a similar process when it established guidance for composites materials. Additive manufacturing is particularly complex, however, because companies are using a wide range of materials and processes, which continue to evolve.

“One could try to group them by source of raw material, for example powder versus wire, and by the source of energy used to melt the material, laser versus electron beam versus plasma arc,” Gorelik said. “This variety of processes is great from the technology and business standpoint because it gives industry a great deal of flexibility.”

From a regulatory standpoint, the range of materials and processes presents significant challenges, he added.
The FAA is working with other government agencies and industry groups to tackle the problem because “we realize we may not currently have enough internal knowledge and expertise,” Gorelik said.

The FAA shared its draft roadmap with NASA, the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Army and the Aerospace Industries Association’s Additive Manufacturing Working Group.

“This is a huge technical problem scope,” Gorelik said. “It would be impractical for any single entity to try to address it single handedly. In my mind, collaboration is the key to ensure the safe introduction of this exciting new technology in commercial as well as military aerospace.”

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...