Discovering the Materials that will Build the Future

A Q&A with John Ploense, technical and project manager for Advanced Manufacturing Technology and Innovation

By Elizabeth McCann

3D printing airplane parts is no longer the future, it’s here. In recent years, the aerospace and defense industry has been working to improve and expand the technology with new materials. Northrop Grumman’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology and Innovation (AMTI) is at the forefront of this search. One Magazine sat down with John Ploense, technical and project manager for AMTI, to talk about his team’s research and their vision for this technology.

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AMTI is constantly researching new materials, like electrostatic dissipative polyetherketoneketone (ESD-PEKK). Why is this work so important to the company?

When you look at where the customer wants to go, they want products that are cheaper, they want them faster, and they want novel designs. They want to make sure that we don’t have any supply chain problems in that whole system.

The charter of AMTI is to perform that innovative technology advancement. We leverage unique designs to drive low cost products and boost overall performance. You have something that works on a lab bench, and looks really promising for production, and now you need to develop that laboratory-environment technology into something that we can put directly on a production line. Our job is to carry that technology through to the end.

How did you come to work in additive manufacturing at Northrop Grumman?

I studied chemical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and when I was there, I mostly studied pharmaceuticals. When I graduated, the pharmaceutical industry wasn’t offering the kind of technical position I was interested in. Northrop Grumman offered me a spot, and I started in composites. I saw the additive manufacturing department and I was interested in it. I see a bright future here.

Leadership has been very flexible with letting me guide my career path in my department. That focus on innovation at Northrop Grumman was very attractive. It is very attractive. I like it here.

When it comes to additive manufacturing, better known as 3D printing, where do you see the future?

I saw a poster from the ‘80s about 3D printing that showed a vat of goo with a dripping airplane coming out of it. Dripping, as if the entire aircraft had been 3D printed with stereolithography. For cost and schedule reasons, I don’t believe we’re ever going to do that. However, I do see us making very large portions of the aircraft with additive manufacturing; eventually, large frame sections, the skeleton. The Department of Defense is headed toward shorter cycle times to ensure the most advanced technology is in the field. Instead of 30-year programs, there will be three 10-year programs. Additive manufacturing is the kind of technology that’s going to enable that.

What are some of the challenges and possibilities when it comes to 3D printing and supply chain?

Sustainment is 70% of the cost of an aircraft. Right now, we are providing this agile manufacturing technology in production and increasingly innovating to make it seamlessly integrated and adaptive. First, we must achieve this in production. This will create the manuals, methods, and understanding necessary. Eventually, we can bring that to the field, which supports the national defense in a way that nothing has. We’re making it so supply chain disruptions that intermittently happen, or could happen as a part of a large conflict, aren’t as much of a problem.

When it comes to customer guidance, we are tailoring requirements for what is good enough for different kinds of applications. For some parts, such as attritable aircraft, we can design to lower safety margins and less defined properties, allowing us to reduce insertion costs. For manned aircraft, the requirements are significantly higher. How do you prove what’s good enough? Well, we answer that, and we run it by our customers and get their input. Then we iteratively change those requirements in a way that makes it more reasonable, drives down cost, increases security, and provides more certainty.

How does Northrop Grumman stay ahead of this rapidly-advancing technology?

We’re trailblazing. Northrop Grumman is an engineering group. We are very technology-driven and technology-oriented. AMTI falls under Global Operations, which is a behemoth of an organization, and so we work with the supply chain – not just in additive, but also in Automation, Materials and even manufacturing software companies – to ensure we are taking the best practices from across the industries to keep our technology relevant. We work furiously to explore new technologies, let our customers decide which ones are correct, and go down that path.

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