Academics Pioneer New Rapid Prototyping Technology

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A new process for producing large titanium aerospace parts hopes to reach commercial use in the next year or two. Traditional methods of machining from rolled or forged blocks can waste up to 95% of the raw material. The new method originally patented by Rolls Royce a few years ago called Shaped Metal Deposition, manufactures components by building them up from welding wire which allows precise final shape and minimal machining. The problem so far has been although the welding can be automated by a robot arm the wire feed and current have to be controlled by a skilled technician – which is prohibitively expensive. The robot arm carries a Tungsten Inert Gas (TIG) welding head operating in a sealed cell filled with argon gas following a CAD model. The three-year Rapid Production of Large Aerospace Components (RAPOLAC) project involves eight academic and industrial partners from the UK, Belgium, Italy and Argentina. The lead team at the UK’s Sheffield University are developing a computer controlled automated control system building on work done by the University of Catania in Sicily.

If successful, the technology could dramatically reduce the material costs in manufacturing complex aerospace and medical implant components and improve the speed of rapid prototyping for new product development. Sacrificial aerospace components are being targeted first because it is difficult to get certification for critical engine parts with new technology. The team is on track for commercial launch by Footprint Tools, RAPOLAC’s commercial partner in a year or two.

–Stuart Burns

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