Undoubtably, the aerospace industry has faced incredible challenges, especially over the past 12 months. Nevertheless, the industry has time and again proven its resilience as the pace of innovation continues. Today's aerospace manufacturers are meeting complexity head-on, adopting new tools and technologies to improve productivity, safety, performance, and cost.
In this Q&A, Chris Belle, CEO of Tri Tool, a global leader in the design and manufacture of high-performance, custom MissionBuilt™ engineered solutions and Purpose Built precision machine tools for major industrial markets, discusses current trends in aerospace and the importance of emerging technologies that are re-shaping the industry.
Belle: The pace of innovation within the aerospace manufacturing sector is incredible. With the rise of private spaceflight, there is a race to make manned missions economical and spacecraft lighter, safer, and more advanced. Engineering efforts that previously took months are now being completed within weeks.
Yet on a more basic level, the pace of innovation is simply the speed at which aerospace manufacturers can improve their existing workflows while introducing new tools, technologies, and processes to stay ahead of competition. This is why we’re seeing a growing number of aerospace manufacturers bring fabrication and production in-house. Bringing manufacturing in-house enables companies to eliminate “middlemen” vendors, shorten delivery timelines, and gain greater control over their manufacturing processes. As a result, the automation and portability of tooling is becoming indispensable to aerospace manufacturing workflows.
For example, tools once driven by air lines are now being converted to portable lithium battery powered devices. Single-use tools are being tied together with control systems and servo motors to increase throughput and ensure consistency in performance. And to improve fuel efficiency and reduce the weight of aircraft and spacecraft, the aerospace industry is using lighter and stronger material, such as Inconel, which is changing the way components are cut and welded. We’re seeing the emergence of entirely new tooling equipment and processes.
Belle: Considering the level of speed and accuracy that is required in the aerospace manufacturing industry, each of these types of materials introduce different challenges. For example, Inconel, which is an alloy composed of 42-70 percent nickel with significant chromium and iron components, is extremely resistant to oxidation, corrosion, and scaling in high-temperature environments. In fact, Inconel will maintain its tensile strength at temperatures that would cause plain steel to become pliable. It’s an excellent material to use in rockets and spacecraft, but it is incredibly difficult to machine.
To quickly and accurately machine Inconel, you need specialized equipment with a specific tool bit and the functional knowledge of how the metal behaves, what cutting speed to use, and when to replace the tool bit. Without all of these components, machining Inconel can become a major bottleneck in the aerospace manufacturing workflow.
Belle: Aerospace welding is a delicate process that demands precision. It consistently requires innovation in materials and welding processes because of the complexity of the projects, high safety standards, and rapid advancement of technology. This means there is substantial investment being made into joining aluminums together, as well as creating multi-layer composites.
One of Tri Tool’s welding partners, Fronius, has introduced a new technology called Cold Metal Transfer Twin (CMT Twin). This technology allows users to take two CMT processes and combine it with a gas metal arc (GMA) pulse welding process. From an application standpoint, this new technology allows welders to put thin sheets of aluminum together.
Belle: The aerospace industry has been using additive manufacturing (AM) for many applications. From aircraft and spacecraft parts to engines and turbines, 3D technologies save time and money to create stronger, more efficient components. AM has improved part performance, reduced weight, and has helped to remove design and production constraints.
While commercial aviation has been slower to adopt AM, predominantly because of strict Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety regulations governing the use of new technologies, the private space sector has been more receptive. We’re starting to see a number of private space companies use AM and 3D printing to rapidly develop and test new components.
Perhaps most notably, AM is changing the way in which aerospace parts and components are engineered. Traditionally, engineers have had to physically remove or add material to a prototype component to determine the optimal design. Now with AM, engineers can try different iterations of a component within a digital 3D environment to find the best design before the prototype is developed. And 3D printing enables engineers to quickly develop that exact prototype without requiring manual carving or cutting. From a production standpoint, AM requires fewer manufacturing steps, ensures consistency and repeatability, and reduces costs.
Belle: Automation, automation, automation. The aerospace manufacturing industry is one of the most innovative sectors, yet a large percentage of companies still rely on manual processes for the bulk of their work. Even commercial airlines are still using hand tools to take out rivets or replace hydraulic lines. Considering how much money a commercial airline loses when a plane is grounded for maintenance, it’s shocking that more companies are not fast-tracking automation integration.
There are tremendous time- and cost-saving opportunities for aerospace manufacturers who adopt workflow automation and new technologies. For example, Tri Tool recently worked with the United States Air Force to customize the Model 550 Chipless Tube Cutter (CTC) system to support a range of cutting heads that could rapidly and reliably sever tubing in extremely tight places.
Belle: Creative problem-solving is easily the most overlooked value when searching for a precision machining partner. A lot of companies have equipment, but the differentiator comes down to whether the company understands the true needs of their customer, and more importantly, the true needs of their customer’s customer.
Many companies will focus on the CNC machines they have (capabilities) without knowing the needs of their customer. At Tri Tool, we have a saying, “Prescription before Diagnosis is Malpractice”. If your machining partner isn’t asking you questions, your needs aren’t being met.
In the aerospace industry, new challenges arise every day. To be successful and agile, aerospace manufacturers need a partner who will ask questions, whocan think outside of the box, and who can solve these challenges as fast as possible.
For over 49 years, Tri Tool has been at the forefront of innovation in the aerospace industry. Our precision machining tools, custom engineered solutions, and on-site services have been trusted by the world’s leading aerospace companies to cut, weld, square and bevel with exacting accuracy, time-saving speed, and field-proven performance.
Learn more about how Tri Tool's precision machining tools and equipment for aerospace manufacturers here
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