Originally published by Graham Warwick for Aviation Week & Space Technology on January 11th 2017

Airbus is installing a large additive-manufacturing machine at a production site in France to 3-D-print titanium aircraft structural parts for its aircraft. The EBAM 110 electron-beam additive manufacturing system from U.S. company Sciaky is expected to be commissioned in February.

Chicago-based Sciaky has produced thousands of pounds of test material and demonstration parts for Airbus over the last year and a half leading up to the airframer purchasing its own machine, says John O’Hara, director of global sales.

Developed from decades of electron-beam welding experience, Sciaky’s EBAM machine builds metal parts layer by layer by melting metal wire using an articulated, moving electric-beam gun. The EBAM 110 is its most popular machine so far, says O’Hara, because it can print and weld and is large enough to produce airframe structural components “and any part inside an aircraft engine.” The machine has a work envelope of 70 X 47 X 63 in.

Sciaky’s EBAM 110 electron-beam additive manufacturing system has a work envelope of 70 X 47 X 63 in. Credit: Sciaky

Metal additive manufacturing for aerospace is still in its infancy, and most of Sciaky’s activity so far has been focused on qualifying materials, processes and parts for customers such as Airbus and Lockheed Martin, using its own machines.

Five EBAM machines have been built, including the one for Airbus. The fifth will be delivered this month to the Buffalo Manufacturing Works at the University of Buffalo, New York. Operated by engineering and technology organization EWI, this is an additive-manufacturing laboratory with several different technologies in-house, says O’Hara.

Other customers are operating clandestinely for now, he says. Sciaky is also expecting a contract shortly for an EBAM machine from an Asian customer, for use in an additive-manufacturing center performing subcontracted work.

O’Hara says the qualification work completed so far shows EBAM can produce components that meet or exceed the properties of forged parts. Printing rather than forging these parts avoids the long lead times and the waste of expensive metal involved in machining finished parts from forgings. With its high deposition rates, the wire-fed EBAM can produce parts in hours or days, versus weeks or months, he says.

An additively manufactured preform for an Airbus upper rear spar (left) was lightly machined to produce the finished part (right). Credit: Sciaky

While Airbus will use its machine to print and weld titanium components, Sciaky is developing the capability to handle other metals used by the aerospace industry, including nickel-based superalloys such as Inconel and Hastelloy used in the hot sections of engines.

The company is also working with high-temperature refractory metals used in rocket nozzles. “EBAM does not have the reflection issues of lasers,” says O’Hara. “We can even work with tungsten.” And Sciaky has a small-business innovative research contract to develop the capability to 3-D-print niobium alloys for propulsion systems.

Keeping up with growing demand for additive-manufacturing machines and services “is a problem at times,” says O’Hara. “The last four EBAM machines were released for production without a buyer and somewhere along the way we sold them. We are constantly looking for outlets to add capacity.” The machines supplied to EWI and the Asian facility will provide additional contract capacity.

Since Sciaky began working with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics on airframe structures for the F-35, the EBAM has been improved to “where some properties are now better than for forged parts,” says O’Hara. In other areas “we are still working the last couple of percent to call it a draw.” Lockheed Martin Space Systems, meanwhile, expects to qualify EBAM parts this year for use in its satellites, he says.

“Other aircraft OEMs are working with us on qualifying airframe parts. One is getting ready to talk publicly,” O’Hara says. The move into 3-D printing of metal airframe parts for production aircraft is a major step for additive manufacturing. “We provided thousands of pounds to Airbus before the deal was signed,” O’Hara reiterates. “They know where this is going.”