Boeing Introduces New Additive Manufacturing Facility, Key to the Future of Aerospace
By Scott Hamilton
September 28, 2022, © Leeham News: Boeing officially celebrated the opening of its Boeing Additive Manufacturing (BAM) plant in the small suburb of Algona (WA), east of Tacoma, last week.
BAM opened just at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. But ceremonies have been postponed so far.
Additive manufacturing (AM) is not new to Boeing. He has been doing AM in various forms for 30 years. But more and more, companies are turning to AM to reduce production costs and time. Also known as 3D printing, companies use AM for tooling, parts and small components from civil and commercial aviation to defense and space programs. Parts are used on airplanes, drones and spacecraft.
Many homes and non-aerospace companies have 3D printers. Some are for businesses and some are for hobbyists. As part of a media and VIP tour last week, guests were given two small 3D-printed planes as gifts, one metal and one plastic (plus a box of two chocolates, not made by AM, but from the real thing).
Cost, time and parts
Moving away from traditional production methods is important for manufacturers and their supply chains, regardless of industry. Melissa Orme, vice president of additive manufacturing for Boeing, declined to provide a general guideline on cost savings through AM. But a billboard later in the tour, depicting winglet production for the 737, gave a clue.
The time required to manufacture the fin components from an outside supplier meant a six week lead time. Printing the part in-house takes 41 hours and the post-production time takes an additional 85 hours, just over half the time. The “traditional” manufacturing cost was $50,000 to $60,000. The AM cost is around $40,000, a reduction of 25-50%.
Orme said cost reduction depends on the application. But she added that a key benefit is the elimination of coins. “I like to say, how many parts are we eliminating? The value is that we don’t just have a cost difference. Look at it holistically. If we’re able to eliminate 30,000 fasteners and other parts, and all the costs that go with it, that’s a huge saving.
Although Boeing has been doing AM for 30 years, so much of it is new that regulatory approval is needed along the way. Given the overhang of the grounding of the MAX and the poor relationship with the Federal Aviation Administration coming out of this crisis, the question arises: how smooth is FAA approval going for the ‘Am?
Orme said that with any new technology, data must be accumulated and analyzed. “We don’t have this luxury of seven decades of data like castings. The challenge is really to put together the data that provides that level of comfort. We have a lot of tests. We have good relationships with the FAA and other regulators we work with. »
Boeing’s 30 years of AM production began with tooling, followed by polymer (plastic). Certification of the latter is a different process from the former, Orme said. Using AM for metals is another certification process. Coins require yet another modality and certification process. The use of powders is new, requiring even more process and scrutiny.
“The FAA wants to know how we test,” Orme said. “They want to be there. They want to be part of the process, and they are.
Next Boeing aircraft
Throughout Boeing’s oft-delayed journey to a new aircraft, known as a mid-market aircraft (MOM) or new mid-market aircraft (NMA), advanced production has been a key part of developing the next Boeing Airplane (NBA). Is the BAM a key element for the NBA? Orme took the question to Corporate Communications.
“It’s a technology the company has invested in first and foremost,” spokesman Gary Wicks said. “It clearly shows what the company thinks about this technology and how it helps us move forward.”
The scale at BAM is small, part of a manufacturing revolution, for the NBA, whatever it is. Boeing wants to diversify away from expensive and time-consuming autoclaves (something Scott Carson, then CEO of BCA, said in the early days of 787 production). But reducing weight, parts, production time and costs wherever possible is clearly important to the NBA’s business plan.
Boeing uses AM parts for 777 doors, Starliner spacecraft internal parts, and 737 winglets, among other things.
The BAM is also doing a big section for the WISK Advanced Air Mobility vehicle in which Boeing has invested $450 million. When complete, the 12-foot section becomes part of the cabin.
All of this experience and investment will benefit the NBA. The question remains, how heavily the NBA will rely on AM.