Additive Manufacturing: “A revolution is coming”
Additive Manufacturing, including the 3D printing of tools and components, is an exciting technology that promises to transform Saab’s product portfolio. “A revolution is coming,” says Göran Backlund, the company’s Additive Manufacturing guru.
Once upon a time, the idea of 3D printing a production tool or a component of a product was just science fiction. But in March 2021, a Gripen fighter jet successfully completed a test flight in the skies above Sweden while fitted with a 3D-printed replacement hatch. It was a milestone event for Saab and the global defence industry, and the latest evidence that Additive Manufacturing is an emerging idea whose time has come.
What is Additive Manufacturing?
Someone who knows as much as anyone at Saab about Additive Manufacturing (AM) is Göran Backlund, Chief Technical Officer at Saab Dynamics. Göran first encountered AM on a Saab assignment in South Africa in 2008, and has worked with it since 2013.
Saab trials 3D-printed part on Gripen
Saab has successfully conducted the trial which marked the first time an exterior 3D-printed part has been flown on a Gripen. The purpose of the trial was to test how additive manufacturing could be used in battlefield damage repair.
“The best way for me to describe AM is that, instead of cutting through, turning or milling material and ending up with the end component and a pile of chips, you actually build the component from the bottom up, and you only use the material in the component, with no waste,” he explains.
“For Saab this process usually occurs by power-bed fusion, which is the mainstream printing of metals or polymers from 3D computer aided design drawings, using powder or filament-based ‘3D printing’ machines.”
How does Saab work with AM?
Göran chairs Saab’s Additive Manufacturing Group, which brings together engineering representatives from all the company’s business areas to drive the development and integration of this exciting technology. “We have a five-year rolling plan, focusing on particular Additive Manufacturing technologies,” he explains.
In addition to his role at Saab, Göran is also the company’s representative on AMEXCI, an organisation jointly owned by Saab and some of Sweden’s biggest industrial names. AMEXCI is dedicated to training and prototype development, and just recently moved into the volume production of 3D-printed parts on behalf of Saab. “AMEXCI is Saab’s key AM partner,” says Göran. “It is fundamental to us achieving our goals in this field.”
How can Additive Manufacturing benefit Saab and our customers?
Göran Backlund is positively evangelical about the benefits of AM.
“It’s already a technology that’s of strategic importance to Saab and it’s growing in significance all the time,” he says. “With AM we can build better and smarter products, and do so less expensively, with a lower environmental footprint, which adds value for us and our customers.
“We’ve already tested the technology in several different applications and we have found that we can reduce cost, cut the lead time for the development of the tool or part and optimise its weight, which in most applications is a critical aspect. But above all, AM gives us design freedom. It means we can create things that we couldn’t even build before.”
What sort of applications are we using it for?
“Including the recent example of the Gripen hatch, we have a lot of very interesting cases,” says Göran.
“For example, a few years ago we tested a 3D-printed breach on the M4 Titanium version of Saab’s Carl-Gustaf rifle. This is the part through which the weapon’s ammunition is discharged, and it has temperature of between 3,500 and 4,000 degrees, with incredible gas flow pressure. A lot of people thought this part would not take those kinds of pressures, but it did, and I still have it on my desk!
“We have also produced a 3D-printed cooling plate and a flow distributor, which is part of the cooling circuit for the EW system of the Gripen E. It’s only four millimetres thick but it’s still hollow, and the coolant running through the plate picks up the heat from the electronics and then discharges it. Through this part, which is a Gripen on-board system, we’ve improved the cooling efficiency by up to 50%, which helps make the Gripen perform even better for our customers.
“You couldn’t build this part as effectively with any other technology. As a matter of fact the design of this cooling plate cannot be manufactured with any other technology than AM. It’s cheaper, has lower weight, it’s quicker to make and it’s much more efficient.”
AM has also been used to develop production tools for creating carbon-fibre reinforced plastic structures. Compared with the old method of milling the tool from aluminium, making a 3D-printed polymer tool cuts lead time and cost by 80% each.
“This shows the rest of Saab that all business areas, where we have low-volume production and so the cost of tools and fixtures is high, that this can reduce costs and lead times significantly,” says Göran.
How big a potential does AM have?
“I would say we’ve only just started our journey. There’s so much potential in this,” says Göran.
“I’ve seen so many cool applications in so many different areas where you can’t believe what people have come up with. You have this design freedom. When we release that power within Saab Group, where we have high-cost products, very complex, and low-volume productions - it can all be changed by this manufacturing technology.
“I’m really looking forward to having the community within Saab become familiar with this technology and turn to it to bring value for our products, for our portfolio and for our customers. A revolution is coming.”