Navy’s 3D printing project promises big payoffs for aerospace and defense manufacturing

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

Lockheed Martin this month won a two-year, $5.8 million contract from the Office of Naval Research to investigate ways to apply artificial intelligence so robots can be trained to oversee the 3D printing of complex parts such as those used in military aircraft and satellites.

The aerospace industry is making huge investments in additive manufacturing but producing parts that can pass quality tests in government programs, for instance, remains a challenge. The quality control today “requires a lot of babysitting,” said Brian Griffith, project manager at Lockheed Martin. “High-value and intricate parts sometimes require constant monitoring by specialists to get them right,” he said. “Furthermore, if any one section of a part is below par, it can render the whole part unusable.”

WHY THE NAVY IS FUNDING THIS “We hope that by using artificial intelligence and data from sensors that monitor the 3D printing process, we can predict the material properties,” Griffith told SpaceNews. If this technology works as envisioned, the benefits for aerospace manufacturing could be significant. “You can then modify the process while it’s doing the manufacturing,” he said. “That enables you to manufacture a part that has strict specifications, like an aviation or a space part. Even if I’m far away from a dedicated manufacturing center I can make parts that have strict qualifications.”

For the ONR contract, Lockheed teamed up with several organizations. Iowa State University, Carnegie Mellon University and the Colorado School of Mines are doing the digital simulation work. The team also includes the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the America Makes national manufacturing institute. GKN Aerospace and Wolf Robotics are on the team as well.

THE PROMISE OF AI “We are creating a completely new methodology for controlling the 3D printing process,” said Zach Loftus, Lockheed Martin fellow for additive manufacturing. “This capability really doesn’t exist in the industry right now,” he said. “We have equipment now that is able to produce parts using additive manufacturing technology but there’s a lot of development that is done to control the process in order to ensure a quality part,” he said. “We want more of that work to be automated. Rather than verify everything after the fact and hope that it’s good, we’re trying to, in real time, verify the quality during fabrication.”


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