WBI Sprint Validates Additive Manufacturing Practices that Could Revolutionize Power Generation for the Air Force

22.02.19 03:48 AM By Jennie Hempstead

On-demand power generation has been a long-time goal for the Air Force. Part of that on-demand vision includes making repairs to rotating electric motors, quickly, with minimal downtime. Organizations like AmericaMakes and the Air Force MANTECH program have helped bridge the gap between industry and Air Force additive manufacturing opportunities. Companies like Siemens have been merging efficiency, sustainability and rapid prototyping for turbine engines.

Inside the Air Force, manufacturing time is an even larger barrier. Air Force requirements are generally more complex than industry requirements, making off-the-shelf purchases nearly impossible. “The biggest problem with conventional manufacturing processes is time,” said Miller. “Manufacturing is an iterative process, and you never get a part 'just right’ on the first try. You spend time creating the tools to manufacture a complex part and then spend more time when you realize an initial design needs to be modified. Additive manufacturing offers lower cost tooling and lower lead times. The early mistakes don’t hurt you as badly.” (source U.S. Air Force News)

Additionally, commercial manufacturers aren’t interested in fulfilling a small order of highly-specialized parts that can only be sold to a single customer.

To overcome these barriers, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Aerospace Systems Directorate (AFRL/RQ) and Wright Brothers Institute completed the "Additive Manufacturing for Power Generation" Tech Sprint resulting in key proof of concept results. AFRL/RQQE engineer Kevin Yost, partnered with WBI's Joe Althaus and Tom Mitchell to sprint toward assessing the viability of using additive manufacturing for rotating electrical machines. The team met with additive manufacturing experts within AFRL/RX, academia, and industry as well as experts in power generation, magnetic materials, conductors and testing/evaluation to gain an insight on the opportunity space. Leveraging the AFRL Maker Hub facility the team focused on a building prototypes using low-cost 3D printing techniques to inform strategy, define gaps, and highlight technical hurdles. The effort resulted in a prototype machine capable of 5000-10000 RPM, and peak power generation of 850W. The machine weighed approximately 1.5 lb., with an outer diameter of 4 in. and a length of 2.75 in. Furthermore, the team identified the next steps in a follow-on research program, focusing on soft magnetic materials and leveraging a nascent additive manufacturing technique in an attempt to push the innovation for rotating electrical machines further. This effort was one of the AFRL Tech Sprints being facilitated by WBI over the coming months as part of the AFRL/SDPE Innovation Pipeline initiative.

This story was featured in our FY18 Q4 report. Download the report here.

Jennie Hempstead