America Makes Project to Accelerate UAM Adoption

Today I want to share with you a sad story of toil and defeat.  Of a hero’s journey through hard work, a long road, dead ends, and backtracking.  Don’t worry, dear reader, it ultimately has a happy ending.

Fabrisonic has been a spinout company of EWI since 2011 and our patented ultrasonic additive manufacturing technology has been in development even longer.  With any new manufacturing technology, a critical hurdle is in figuring out the key capabilities and use cases.  After ten years in business, we now know that the most critical capabilities are:

For this latter capability, we developed much of this technology while making heat exchangers with NASA JPL.

We started out making very simple channels.  Over time, we were able to develop the process to produce increasingly complex heat exchangers (Figure 1).

Figure 1.  A visual history of heat exchanger development from simple through samples to highly complex shapes.

After many trials and false starts, eventually, we learned how to produce wide channels with our proprietary support material (patent pending).  This has enabled us to be able to produce very large heat exchangers (Figure 2), waveguides, and other types of items with complex interior geometries.  Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing (UAM) is often used in such applications as a replacement process for brazing or explosion welding.

Figure 2.  A few examples of the many heat exchangers produced at Fabrisonic for NASA JPL showing the wide range of sizes

The NASA SBIR projects led to the exciting opportunity to be able to produce a VAMP (vertical avionics mounting plate) heat exchanger for the Mars 2020 Rover mission (Figure 3).  The original design was built by hand using numerous components including bolts and epoxy to glue tubing to a frame.  That design weighed 4 lbs. and took over 2 months to produce.  The new 3D printed version using Fabrisonic’s UAM technology was 1 piece, had over a 30% weight reduction, and could be produced in 3 weeks with no tooling and no post-processing.

The next step was testing.  The parts were nondestructive tested, helium leak tested to better than 1e-9 scc/s GHe, vibration tested, and thermal cycled.  Sample heat exchangers were even burst pressure tested to over 6000 psi.    The UAM heat exchanger passed everything that was thrown at it.  The VAMP heat exchanger was thoroughly CT scanned (Figure 4). 

Awesome! Right? 

Not so fast. 

In the end, it was determined a part made with a new manufacturing process was too risky for NASA’s one shot with the Mars Rover Perseverance mission. There just wasn’t enough statistical materials data to be 100% confident that there was zero risk of failure.  Ultimately, Perseverance was launched July 30, 2020, without its UAM heat exchanger and relied on the heavier design based on the traditional tube bonded to plate technology.  It landed on February 18, 2021, and continues to do its work on Mars.

That might be the end of the story, except that Fabrisonic’s ethos is based on perseverance just like the name of the Mars Rover. While we didn’t make that mission, we are continuing in our efforts to be able to provide NASA as well as any commercial customers with the data that they need for having statistically confident design allowable data.

Figure 3.  Mars Rover Perseverance…
Figure 3.  …and the VAMP heat exchanger intended for it.

Figure 4.  CT scans of the VAMP heat exchanger.

To that end, we have recently begun, along with America Makes, a project to create just that set of data for 6061 aluminum.  America Makes is the national accelerator for additive manufacturing and 3D printing.  It is part of Manufacturing USA, an initiative to coordinate public and private investment in emerging advanced manufacturing technologies. There are 228 member organizations from the government, academia, non-governmental organizations, and industry, including large OEMs as well as small businesses and startups. 

The project awarded from the 2021 Open Project Calls is partnering with The Ohio State University, 3Degrees, and Westmoreland Testing Lab.  The announcement (Figure 5) also shows the other project leads including Penn State, ASTM International, and Boeing.  We are honored to be included in such good company.

Figure 5.  Announced winners of the 2021 America Makes Open Project Call.

The Fabrisonic team’s project is titled Ultrasonic Additive Manufacturing Technical Data Package Maturation. 

What that means is that we are working to meet the aerospace industry’s needs for a Technical Data Package.  TDP means having a technical description of an item sufficient to support acquisition, production, engineering, and logistics.  One must have enough information to define how something is made and to be confident in its performance. 

We are working to create enough data in various print thicknesses and processing conditions to be able to have UAM 6061 in the Metallic Materials Properties Development and Standardization Handbook.  This includes characterizing raw material, as printed material, and HIP (Hot isostatic press) and heat-treated to T6 material.  We are also starting work on developing an industry standard to cover processing requirements that correspond to the data.

While the project is in its initial stages and runs through the end of May 2022, we look forward to sharing more details on the results at the spring America Makes Technical Review and Exchange (TRX) currently planned for March 22-24, 2022.