US Air Force Research Laboratory´s Manufacturing and Industrial Technologies Division has partnered with a contractor team of Cornerstone Research Group, A&P Technology and Spintech LLC to conduct research to quantify benefits of replacing legacy manufacturing processes with novel processes to fabricate an inlet duct to provide sufficient air flow to the engine compressor of aircraft engines, the division said.
Part of the Air Force 2030 Science and Technology strategy includes the deployment of low cost unmanned aerial systems in mass to assist in future near-peer engagements. To realize this vision, new manufacturing strategies need to be identified which can support the rapid manufacturing of high-quality aerospace components at costs that are lower than what are currently available using legacy manufacturing processes.
The research studied the legacy fabrication of an 11-foot long, S-shaped engine inlet duct that consists of composite material pre-impregnated with a synthetic resin, applied by hand, to a multi-piece steel mandrel. The mandrel is packaged and placed in an autoclave for processing. An autoclave is essentially a heated pressure vessel which supplies heat to activate resin curing and pressure to ensure there is minimal absorbency in the fully cured composite part.
One of the primary goals of this program is to understand part cost and production time benefits from introducing the new tooling and processing solutions.
The group completed element analysis finalization of the overbraid architecture, fabrication of a shape memory polymer forming tool and construction of the SMP mandrel that will serve as the tool during the preform overbraid process.
Because of inlet duct geometrical complexity, multiple iterations were necessary to optimize the overbraid machine settings and thus minimize composite material wrinkling. A total of four inlet ducts will be fabricated and legacy part cost and production time will be compared to the new design.
The final inlet duct will be delivered to the government for further integration into the Aerospace Systems Directorate´s complementary airframe design and manufacturing program. Personnel at the Aerospace Vehicles Division will conduct static ground testing of the integrated braided fuselage and inlet duct structure.
The Air Force Research Laboratory is the primary scientific research and development center for the Air Force. AFRL plays an integral role in leading the discovery, development, and integration of affordable warfighting technologies for air, space, and cyberspace force. With a workforce of more than 11,000 across nine technology areas and 40 other operations across the globe, AFRL provides a diverse portfolio of science and technology ranging from fundamental to advanced research and technology development.