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Accelerating Impact: Professor Andrew Plummer on transforming global aircraft manufacturing

Professor Andrew Plummer built on funding to pioneer the use of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies in the production of aerospace components.

Photo taken from above, of a man cradling a drill like machine standing underneath a large piece of orange machinery.
Additive Manufacturing technology set to transform the aerospace industry

Additive Manufacturing technology set to transform the aerospace industry

Professor Andrew Plummer, from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bath built on funding from the University’s ESPRC IAA Open Call to pioneer the use of additive manufacturing (AM) technologies in the production of aerospace components.

The challenge

Manufacturing is a challenge in the aerospace industry. The aviation sector must meet complex requirements and the highest quality assurance standards for all its materials and components. To allow optimised designs which reduce weight and improve efficiency, many aerospace companies are switching from conventional manufacturing processes to additive manufacturing – and modernising the way their parts are designed and manufactured.

Additive manufacturing (3D printing) has enormous potential for changing the way in which both traditional and new products are realised. This offers an opportunity to manufacture high-performance parts with less material waste, development time and reduced weight. However, significant challenges to the industry include the need to better understand new 3D printing design methods, material properties and the fatigue performance of built parts.

"What excites me about additive manufacture is the design freedoms it gives - previously undreamt of with traditional manufacturing methods. 3D printing technologies have now totally transformed the level of integration and performance of complex hydraulic aerospace components." Professor Andrew Plummer

3D printing for aerospace

Working with world-leading industrial collaborators Moog and Renishaw, the IAA project tackled the challenge of utilising laser additive manufacturing in the safety-critical aerospace industry by addressing gaps in understanding of the process, materials’ properties and ‘design rules’ required. These gaps in understanding posed a significant obstacle to commercialising the approach.

"Through our work with Moog and Renishaw we are not only developing better products but also improving the machines that make them. Additive manufacture opens a whole new world of possibilities for complex component design." Professor Andrew Plummer

The research team led by Professor Plummer worked closely with Moog - the global leader in aircraft servovalves. Together they developed a thermal history model to estimate the microstructure of metals built through AM under different conditions; automated image analysis methods to support the analysis of porosity and microstructure; and validated material properties through mechanical testing and microstructure examination. The validation work also served to reduce risk and build confidence in the method.

How IAA funding made a difference

The IAA funding helped to translate the knowledge and realise the impact arising out of the collaboration with Moog. The research team were able to provide Moog with the design guidance required to create high performance hydraulic valves (servovalves) for aircraft flight controls and other components for manufacture in AM.

"IAA funding allowed us to fill in the gaps to create design guidelines based on materials and process understanding – it made our earlier work much more generally applicable." Professor Andrew Plummer

Next steps

Following on from the aerospace project, Andrew believes there is potential to apply additive manufacturing of similar complex components in other fields, e.g. for robotic prostheses, and is continuing to work with Moog and others on developing highly integrated hydraulic and fluid control components that deliver real cross-sector benefits.

Professor Plummer belongs to the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Bath.

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