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Inside a Norsk MERKE IV RPD machine.

Norsk gives Boeing manufacturing edge with first 3D-printed titanium components

Norsk Titanium AS—which has been researching and developing its RPD (rapid plasma deposition) process for over 10 years—says it can produce titanium components that can cost from 50 to 75% less than other equivalent components. Its process involves feeding room-temperature titanium 6-4 wire into a plasma arc created by a pair of torches in argon gas environment. The titanium temperature is raised by thousands of degrees and then is robotically printed as a liquid by a robotic depositing arm. The titanium solidifies instantly after being deposited. The component is rapidly built up in layers in a closed-loop process and requires very little finish machining.

The system itself, a MERKE IV RPD machine, bears a resemblance to a standard computer numerical control (CNC) machining center—with a plasma arc instead of a spindle. Norsk President and CEO, Warren Boley stated that the MERKE IV RPD machine “can print 20 tons of titanium per year,” and that it’s “a game changer in terms of being able to produce aircraft quality titanium parts.”

This past April, Oslo-based Norsk announced that it will be producing via RPD 3D-printed structural titanium components for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Boeing designed the components and collaborated closely with Norsk throughout the development process. To certify these initial structural components on the Dreamliner, Boeing and Norsk undertook a rigorous testing program with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification deliverables completed in February. Norsk is the first supplier for Boeing’s high deposition rate material specification.

“We are always looking at the latest technologies to drive cost reduction, performance, and value to our customers and Norsk’s RPD capability fits the bill in a new and creative way,” said John Byrne, Vice President, Airplane Materials and Structures, Supplier Management, Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Norsk claims that the production cost is less than that of legacy forging and manufacturing techniques where billets of titanium are machined into components.   

“You can take a 200-lb forging and produce a 20-lb part,” said Boley. “We can print 30 lb of material to produce a 20-lb part.” Producing a 200-lb billet and machining it down to a 20-lb component typically requires a lead time of 55 to 75 weeks. These same components can be created via RPD and machine finished within 2 to 3 hours.

Because of the significant reduction of waste and machining energy inherent in their additive process, Norsk claims up to 75% cost and time savings.

With an estimated 1000 titanium components in a Boeing 787 that can be manufactured using the RPD process, Boley stated that, “We think we can save $2500 per part; that’s $2.5 million per aircraft. At 144 aircraft a year, that’s $360 million. That kind of saving is revolutionary.”

Norsk also takes note of the environmental impacts that its RPD process brings as well. By reducing the amount of scrap titanium (approximately 40 lb of scrap to 1 lb that sees flight), the process also reduces the amount of ore that must be mined and processed.

The Dreamliner RPD components—as well as Norsk Titanium’s MERKE IV RDP machine that produced them—will be on display at the International Paris Airshow, Le Bourget in June.

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