Machinists Forge a Brave New World in Three Dimensions

By Chris Boyd

3D movies, 3D video games and their associated 3D glasses have seen mixed results in the commercial world, with some consumers relishing the multidimensional experience and others preferring a more traditional approach. But in the manufacturing world, particularly the aerospace industry, 3D technology has taken off and led to technological breakthroughs.

With 3D printing, there are many ways to create parts for both aircraft and satellites, according to Ian Day, a project manager in Machining Manufacturing with Northrop Grumman. "There are a lot of different processes and materials and machines," he says.

Mechanical Technician Justin Eglitis verifies printed parts in one of Northrop Grumman’s manufacturing facilities in Redondo Beach, CA. With 3D printing technology, Eglitis and his co-workers can create designs that are not possible any other way

Machinists start with a raw material, such as plastic or metal, and feed it to the 3D printer, which is programmed to construct a part layer by layer. "These printers pretty much run around the clock," Day says from one of Northrop Grumman's major manufacturing facilities at Space Park in Redondo Beach, California. "You can create geometries you couldn't make any other way."

Multiple Benefits of 3D in the Manufacturing Process

One of the main benefits of 3D printing is the efficiency at which the machines can produce parts, including drill jigs, fixtures, brackets and other essential items.

"Our manufacturing center had a request to machine aluminum trim tools for composites hand trim operations. We suggested 3D printing the tools from plastic to support the work," says Don McKinzie, manager of Machining Manufacturing. "Machining the tools in aluminum could take 20 to 30 hours on a typical machine shop floor. 3D printing would take about four hours of labor and run unattended to complete the parts.

"Another thing you can do with this additive process that you can't do with the subtractive process is make multi-piece assemblies," McKinzie adds.

Many manufacturing processes are performed by subtracting, or removing, material from a raw chunk of metal or plastic, for example, rather than building up a part from scratch, as is done with 3D printing.

There are other benefits. Users can program the printers via computer from anywhere worldwide. And machinists can reuse leftover material — leftovers in the subtractive process often end up as waste.

'New World' for Designing and Manufacturing Aerospace Products

While 3D printing has advantages over traditional manufacturing technology, McKinzie and Day say it works well with the tried-and-true methods.

“A lot of people think 3D printing is going to do away with the machine shop. It just doesn't work that way," Day says. "3D printed items often go to a milling machine for finishing operations. They complement each other to produce something better than either process can achieve by itself." ”

Ian Day

"It opens up a whole new world of design possibilities," McKinzie says.

At the same time, they both see 3D printing as an innovation that will position Northrop Grumman at the top of the aerospace ladder.

"It allows us to design and manufacture products in different, innovative ways, and it complements our in-house manufacturing," McKinzie says. "Having this capability allows us to think differently as we design and build our products. This enables us to grow our products' performance."

"It's always evolving. It's not just making the parts — it's bringing the design engineers over to see what can be created," Day says. "We have the power to show the customer what is possible. And when we pique their interest, we get more business."

Learn more about manufacturing careers at Northrop Grumman.

Interested in all things involved in 3D printing? Read more articles at Now. Northrop Grumman.