Continuous Composites receives $ 750K to produce drone wings using 3D printing technology
Continuous composites, a developer of composite 3D printing technology, has been awarded a $ 750,000 Phase II Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract from the Department of Defense (DoD).
The company will use the capital to demonstrate its proprietary continuous fiber 3D printing (CF3D) technology in a collaborative manufacturing project with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). Together, the organizations will work on 3D printing of multifunctional composite wing structures for attractive unmanned aircraft (low cost, disposable).
“A Direct to Phase II program gives us the opportunity to collaborate with this innovative team and its disruptive manufacturing technology to further develop CF3D’s capabilities for mission readiness,” says Craig Neslen, AFRL Manufacturing Lead. “We are committed to evaluating and advancing Continuous Composites technology for advanced aerostructures, which will enable us to meet the demanding manufacturing requirements of DoD.”
CF3D for defense applications
Continuous Composites was formed in 2015, and the Idaho-based company claims to hold one of the “world’s first patents granted on printing with continuous fibers.” Unlike many other composite printing processes, CF3D works by combining continuous fiber reinforcements with thermosetting resin technology. Mounted at the end of a robotic arm, a CF3D end effector is used to co-deposit dry fibers along a rapidly curing polymeric resin matrix.
The resin infused fiber is cured almost instantly under UV light, producing an anisotropic part with customizable strength properties. CF3D is compatible with a multitude of fiber types, including carbon, glass, optics and metal.
In the context of defense applications, 3D printing technology offers an inexpensive and rapid method of fabricating lightweight, topologically optimized structural components. These benefits align directly with the Air Force’s Attractive Low Cost Aviation Technology / Platform (LCAAT / P) initiatives.
“We are honored to receive this SBIR Phase II contract directly through the Department of Defense,” adds Tyler Alvarado, CEO of Continuous Composites. “AFRL is a long-standing client who recognized CF3D’s disruptive capacities very early on. Through this contract and others, we are committed to transforming the operational capabilities of the DoD. “
The SBIR phase II contract
The contract itself is for the 3D printing of a spar and wing rib configuration integrated into a single monolithic wing frame. Prior to printing, Continuous Composites and AFRL’s Advanced Structural Concepts division will use AI-based generative design software to optimize the geometry of the wing structure. The part is designed to be manufactured using a high performance thermosetting resin reinforced with continuous carbon fiber – materials that were developed in collaboration with a materials specialist Arkema.
Once made, the 3D printed frame will be assembled with a composite wing skin, making it suitable for use on an unmanned aircraft. AFRL will also perform a static wing test to assess the performance of the structure, while Continuous Composites will document process data to compare its 3D printing technology to traditional manufacturing and assembly processes.
Composite 3D printing technology such as CF3D offers a wide variety of benefits in terms of cost, time and part properties. Earlier this month, Continuous Composites also partnered with an energy technology company Siemens Energy to 3D print power generator parts. Using CF3D, companies were able to manufacture generator components using a special polymer material reinforced with thermosetting glass fibers.
Elsewhere, manufacturer of 3D printers Impossible objects recently entered into a joint development agreement with Owens Corning, supplier of industrial construction materials, to develop its own specialized composite materials for 3D printing. Designed for use with Impossible Objects’ Composite-Based Additive Manufacturing (CBAM) process, the fiberglass-reinforced materials are said to offer high strength-to-weight ratios and excellent chemical resistance.
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The image shown shows the XQ-58A Valkyrie drone, an example of an attractive low-cost aircraft. Photo via Kratos Defense.