At TEI’s Livonia site in Michigan, the VX4000 prints casting cores for series production of large-format structural components for the novel underbody design of the all-electric Cadillac CELESTIQ. (Photo: Business Wire)

OEMs in electronics, broadband, automotive, aerospace, and defense industries are partnering with nimble, proactive contract manufacturers to solve emerging product challenges

By Mark Shortt

May 9, 2023

The United States today is locked in an international race for technological advantage that could impact the nation’s economic competitiveness, national security, and quality of life for years to come.

Technological advancements in microelectronics, additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence, computationally designed materials, and robotics are key to creating next-generation products that protect our nation’s warfighters in today’s battlespaces. They’re also helping surgeons save lives and enabling manufacturers, including carmakers, to lower the carbon footprint of their products.

In the broadband telecommunications arena, contract manufacturers are making electronic components that will help minimize the country’s digital divide. An example is Mara Technologies, a subsidiary of the Invotek Group.

Mara Technologies recently began manufacturing hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) amplifiers for ATX Networks, a manufacturer of broadband access and media distribution products. Mara will provide U.S.-based contract manufacturing of the amplifiers, as well as future ATX products, at a manufacturing plant in Grand Blanc Township, Michigan (see page 59).

The company has integrated an advanced, highly automated linear production line and testing capabilities into the plant’s design for high-volume and high-quality production, ATX said in a release.

“In addition to helping us keep supply chain constraints in check, a U.S. manufacturing facility has the potential to assist MSOs (multiple-system operators) working to shrink the digital divide, leveraging government funding,” said Dan Whalen, CEO of ATX Networks, in the release.

The new domestic facility adds incremental manufacturing capacity and is said to provide ATX’s customers with assurances that the company will be able to scale manufacturing operations to meet the expected rise in demand. According to ATX, multiple industry analysts are predicting that multiple-system operators will make “once-in-a-generation” investments to expand their HFC infrastructures in the next several years.

ATX also said that MSOs that are seeking public funding for expansions into rural regions and other underserved or unserved communities are incentivized by the terms of government subsidies to purchase equipment manufactured in the United States.

One of the prime advantages of the facility is that it shortens delivery times for products in the North American market and de-risks supply chain challenges. “As we all learned over the past few years, supply chain diversification is critical for both scale and risk mitigation,” said Kevin Rossi, general manager of Access Networks at ATX, in a statement.

Defense Industry Seeking Smaller, Agile Manufacturers

Lieutenant Commander Timothy Gorman, spokesperson for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), shed some light on why microelectronics and autonomous systems are essential to the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) technology strategy in an emailed response to Design-2-Part. The rapid evolution of microelectronics, he said, is being driven by the commercial sector as demand for more powerful, inexpensive, and lightweight consumer products has snowballed. Today, they’re being incorporated into “countless DoD systems,” he said.

“Virtually every military and commercial system relies on microelectronics,” LCDR Gorman wrote in his emailed response. “We must secure these critical raw material supply chains and develop viable alternatives when necessary. We must develop and deliver next generation microelectronic technologies faster to enhance lethality, ensure critical infrastructure, and achieve economic competitiveness.”

Autonomous systems, he said, will provide our nation’s warfighters with “persistent early warning, advanced battlespace awareness, freedom of maneuver, and timely strike capability farther forward than ever before, with reduced risk to our warfighters.”

“In an ever shifting and fast-moving global environment, technological advantage is not stagnant,” wrote Lieutenant Commander Gorman. “We cannot rely on today’s technology to ensure military weapon and cyber system dominance tomorrow.”

But equipment is needed so quickly, and technologies are developing at such a rapid pace, that OEMs and end users, including the U.S. Department of Defense, are increasingly relying on their trusted supply chains to deliver these innovative technologies into their hands. They’re seeking and partnering with dynamic parts suppliers and contract manufacturers that have the necessary expertise, agility, and quality management system (QMS) to handle their requirements.

When higher-level contract quality requirements are imposed by DoD, its contractors and parts suppliers must have a quality management system that meets an appropriate industry quality management standard, according to Department of Defense Spokesperson Jessica Maxwell. These standards include ISO 9001, ASQ/ANSI E4, ASME NQA-1, SAE AS9100, SAE AS9003, Nd ISO/TS 16949, she said in an emailed response.

“In addition to the Higher-Level Contract Quality Requirements and NADCAP accreditation, the qualities that DoD values in its contractors/parts suppliers are the ability to perform all contractual requirements, voluntary use of a QMS, even if QMS is not a requirement; and voluntary active participation in the Government-Industry Data Exchange Program (GIDEP),” Maxwell wrote in the email.

Small size is not a disadvantage for qualified American contract manufacturers interested in working on DoD programs. Today, the DoD is actively seeking to bring more small domestic manufacturers into its defense industrial base. High on their list are companies with expertise in printed circuit boards and microelectronics, castings and forgings, advanced materials, and batteries. These capabilities are needed for product development programs from hypersonic aircraft to directed energy weapons.

Maxwell told D2P in the email that American small businesses “spur innovation, represent most new entrants into the defense industrial base, and, through their growth, create the next generation of suppliers with increasingly diverse capabilities.”

“Small companies are agile and can often adapt to changes quicker than larger firms,” she said. “Increasing small business participation in defense acquisitions keeps DoD at the forefront of innovation, will foster more competition to support providing the best goods and services for the military, and enables the Department to leverage the untapped potential of disadvantaged- , women- , and veteran-owned small businesses that have historically been underutilized.”

Over the last few years, the advantages of expanding and diversifying the U.S. defense industrial base (DIB) have become clear. For supply chains that are critical for national defense, Maxwell said the U.S. is “committed to ensuring that it has reliable production access within its defense industrial base, both domestic and allied.”

In addition to increasing competition within the defense industrial base, small businesses “improve the country’s ability to withstand future supply chain disruptions and shocks,” she said.

“As pandemic-induced shortages exemplified, U.S. supply chains are vulnerable to many types of domestic and global disruptions,” Maxwell said. “DoD is working to diversify the DIB, in part by reducing barriers to entry for small businesses and small manufacturers.”

Strengthening the Electronics Supply Chain

Micross Components, Inc., a provider of mission-critical microelectronic components and services headquartered in Melville, New York, is playing a key role in fortifying the electronics supply chain for the United States and its allies. With 10 AS9100/ISO 9001:2015 certified manufacturing facilities in the United States, Micross offers diverse services spanning bare die and wafer, advanced interconnect technology, custom packaging and assembly, component modification, and electrical and environmental testing, the company said in a release.

The company also provides testing and inspection services at its counterfeit mitigation lab in Clearwater, Florida. Its customers include aerospace and defense heavyweights like Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins, Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and BAE Systems, according to the company’s website.

Micross further strengthened its offerings recently with the opening of an 85,000-square-foot semiconductor and specialty electronics manufacturing facility in Apopka, Florida. Micross Components Chairman and CEO Vincent Buffa said the company’s investment in the facility reinforces its commitment to “expanding world-class semiconductor manufacturing capabilities onshore.”

“The products and services Micross provides enable all of the industries critical to our national interests, including aerospace and defense, medical, energy, and transportation,” Buffa said in a release. For more on Micross, see page 60.

3D Printing for Large Metal Parts

As the DoD works to accelerate a digital transformation within its operations, it sees additive manufacturing as a potential game changer for its ability to mitigate supply shortages in the field by printing parts on demand. In a recent article in DoD News, Beth Reece, of the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), wrote that the DLA “is working with the military services and industry to develop common technology, standards, and processes for additive manufacturing.”

In her story, “Leaders Outline Agency’s Role in DoD Additive Manufacturing Capabilities,” Reece wrote that DLA’s role in additive manufacturing includes “defining processes to integrate AM into the supply chain and setting standards for safely handling and distributing raw materials.” Its role also includes “developing processes for sharing supplier-generated technical data across the department and documenting and maintaining a list of sources that have successfully delivered AM parts and raw materials,” according to Reece.

Some companies see additive manufacturing as an opportunity to meet the military’s need for large metal parts that are, due to supply constraints, difficult to acquire. The DoD has made it known that it needs castings and forgings, and welcomes qualified domestic and allied suppliers who can manufacture them to their requirements. But the relative scarcity of such suppliers in the U.S. has opened the door for companies that can 3D print metal parts comparable in strength to cast and forged components.

One of those companies is MELD PrintWorks Corporation, a spinoff of MELD Manufacturing Corporation. In a release on its website, MELD PrintWorks said it is using patented MELD® 3D printing technology to address the needs of industries that struggle to procure forgings, castings, and other metal parts. The company uses various alloys to print large-format parts for multiple industries, according to the website.

“Given the constraints many industries are experiencing in sourcing forgings, castings, and raw materials in general, we are excited to support this transition of MELD printing technology to a production environment,” said MELD Manufacturing Corporation CEO Nanci Hardwick, in a statement. “We spun out this company to provide a source for our many customers eager to have more access to MELD-printed parts,”

MELD machines are said to be unlike any other 3D machines, and in their own category of process type, because they do not melt the metal being printed. The thermo-mechanical MELD process reportedly creates enough flow in the material to combine it and create parts that otherwise appear to be forged.

In a separate release, MELD Manufacturing said its process is a no-melt, open atmosphere technology that is “capable of printing large metal parts at a scale not yet seen in the AM market.” The process reportedly yields isotropic, fully dense parts with low residual stresses and, as a no-melt process, it can print un-weldable metals. MELD parts can be printed in hours or days, as opposed to months or years for forged parts, the company said.

MELD said its technology is well suited to address several challenges facing the defense sector and other industries. The obstacles include supply chain disruptions caused by scarcity of metal spare parts; excessive repair and rework backlog caused by long lead times for backordered parts; and lost operational availability caused by stress fractures and metal fatigue, the company said.

Supplier Uses 3D Sand Printing to Make Cast Cores for EV Structural Components

A supplier to General Motors is using large-format 3D printing not to replace casting, but to make inner cores for the sand casting process. Tooling & Equipment International (TEI), an expert in complex castings, described in a release how it is using what is reportedly the world’s largest 3D sand printer to make cast cores for series production of large-format, weight-saving structural components for the Cadillac CELESTIQ.

Tooling & Equipment International provides design, engineering, and manufacturing of prototype, pre-production, and mass production equipment for the casting industry. The Livonia, Michigan-based company recently boosted its additive manufacturing capacity by purchasing a third VX4000 3D printer from voxeljet AG.

With the purchase, TEI said it has expanded its additive manufacturing capacity to up to 2.5 million liters per year. The company is now able to implement “further technically demanding projects, such as the series production of lightweight components for the underbody structure of the all-electric Cadillac CELESTIQ,” according to the release.

Tooling & Equipment International said the vehicle’s novel underbody structure consists of six large precision sand-cast aluminum parts. The company uses additive manufacturing to produce all inner cores, enabling the incorporation of stiffening features into the hollow sections. This is not economically feasible with conventional manufacturing, the company said.

Tooling & Equipment International reportedly uses 51 additively manufactured sand cores in the production of each vehicle underbody. The company prints the cores using the VX4000 printers, each of which is said to print hundreds of inner cores for several vehicle sets in one night. After printing, TEI smooths the cores, coats them with a fireproof coating, places them in sand molds, and casts them using a low-pressure filling process. Each of the six castings reduces the number of parts by 30 to 40 components versus a typical stamped construction, the company said.

Because each structural part has fully machined interfaces, the six castings can be assembled precisely. According to TEI, “very tight tolerances” can be maintained for assembly fabrication.

Large-format mold and core printing on the VX4000 3D printers is said to make production leaner, faster, and more economical versus conventional manufacturing. Because significantly fewer components need to be produced, assembly work is simpler and faster, voxeljet said in the release.

“By eliminating tools and taking advantage of the large build volume of the VX4000 printers, we can significantly reduce delivery times and produce lightweight components with optimized topologies. This would not be possible in the conventional way,” said TEI President Oliver Johnson, in the release.

The Cadillac CELESTIQ. (Image source: General Motors / Cadillac)

Building a Domestic Supply of Titanium Parts for the U.S. Navy

A new partnership between IperionX Limited and Carver Pump will produce titanium pump components for the U.S. Navy, using domestic additive manufacturing to overcome obstacles that constrain titanium casting, the companies said in a release.

Carver Pump is an American designer and manufacturer of high-performance centrifugal pumps that have reportedly been used in every major U.S. Navy shipbuilding program for the past 60 years. Carver will design the titanium pump components, guide IperionX on prototyping, and lead the qualification of the components for the Navy, according to the release.

Titanium pumps are valued by the U.S. Navy for their exceptional corrosion resistance, enabling high performance and longevity across a range of demanding applications. The Navy uses the pumps in applications like fire suppression, seawater cooling, and desalination, IperionX said in the release.

High-performance titanium pump components are usually produced by titanium casting, a high-cost manufacturing method that can be problematic due to titanium’s high melting point (1,670 °C) and high reactivity with oxygen. To avoid unwanted reactivity, the titanium undergoes specialized vacuum melting and is then poured into specially designed ceramic mold, according to the release.

The United States reportedly no longer has the domestic capacity to manufacture the large titanium castings required for high-performance centrifugal pumps. The result has been long lead times for new pump components, which are sourced from a foreign-controlled supply chain “that exploits high cost and carbon intensive titanium metal,” the companies said.

Alternatively, domestic titanium powders produced by IperionX can be used to additively manufacture the specialized titanium pump components. The powders are reported to provide the U.S. Navy with the capability to significantly reduce lead times for critical parts, increase equipment availability, and sustainably reshore a critical U.S. titanium metal supply chain.

IperionX said its patented technologies offer a pathway to lower-cost, lower carbon, U.S.-manufactured titanium components across a range of important industries, including defense, aerospace, automotive, and consumer electronics. The patented titanium technologies can upcycle low-grade, high oxygen, out-of-specification titanium scrap metal to produce titanium metal that meets or exceeds industry standards, the company said.

According to IperionX, the U.S. Navy’s Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) has developed additive manufacturing processes for more than 500 approved parts used in U.S. ships and submarines. The Governor of Virginia and the U.S. Navy are stepping up efforts to scale additive manufacturing, having recently opened the Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence in Danville, Virginia. The facility is located about 25 miles from the site of IperionX’s new Titanium Demonstration Facility in South Boston, Virginia, the company said.

“In just four months, we’ve seen dynamic progress from IperionX,” said Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin, in a statement. “As they continue to develop synergies with Carver Pump and the U.S. Navy using 100 percent recycled titanium scrap as feedstock, which will soon be produced in Halifax County, we look forward to seeing IperionX’s continued growth and success. This puts Virginia on the map for providing a critical material that is essential for our advanced industries, including those exhibited just down the road at the U.S. Navy’s Additive Manufacturing Center of Excellence.”

The U.S. Navy prizes titanium centrifugal pumps for their exceptional corrosion resistance, performance, and longevity in demanding naval applications. These pumps are critical for fire suppression, seawater cooling, radar and electronics cooling, main propulsion seawater, bilge, and desalination.

The U.S. Navy’s NAVSEA has targeted the development of technical standards for additive manufactured components to increase operational readiness. Additive manufacturing could be used to manufacture obsolete and long-lead time components, and to enhance defense capabilities by manufacturing unique component designs not otherwise possible, according to the release.

“We are delighted to be working with IperionX to help introduce domestic sourced, 100 percent recycled titanium into the U.S. Navy’s supply chain,” said Carver Pump CEO Andrew Carver, in a statement. “When coupled with benefits of additive manufacturing, the partnership provides a significant potential to benefit to Navy operations through the rapid production of complex, operation-critical titanium parts, providing a potential reduction in lead times and increasing equipment availability.”

Carver added that Carver Pump considers the partnership to be “the first step in a larger relationship” focused on “Navy surface ships, as well as new parts for other marine applications.”

Large Format Printing for Mission-Critical Parts

Today, metal additive manufacturing can be used to print a variety of large-format parts for mission-critical industries, such as aerospace, defense, and energy. Two forward-thinking contract manufacturers with the capabilities to serve these industries are Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing (KAM), of Statesville, North Carolina, and ADDMAN Engineering, headquartered in Fort Myers, Florida.

Both companies recently expanded their metal additive manufacturing capabilities by purchasing Sapphire XC large-format 3D printers from Velo3D, a developer of metal 3D printing technology for mission-critical parts. The printers bolster the companies’ ability to make large parts in high performance alloys for the aviation, space, defense, and energy industries, according to releases from Velo3D.

The Sapphire XC printer purchased by KAM is calibrated to print in a nickel-based superalloy that delivers oxidation and corrosion resistance at high temperatures. The alloy is commonly used in aviation, space, defense, and energy applications, all of which are key industries for KAM. The company purchased the Sapphire XC to unlock the ability to print much larger parts for its customers, according to the release.

“Our customers are some of the most innovative companies in their industries and, as a result, they present some of the most complex manufacturing problems to solve—this is where KAM thrives,” said Brad Keselowski, owner and founder of Keselowski Advanced Manufacturing, in a statement. “We are continually investing in new technologies to provide the highest quality finished parts, which starts with additive manufacturing technology but also includes quality precision machining to a finished part.

“With our established processes and team, we feel confident that our Sapphire XC will allow us to serve new industries by increasing the physical size of the parts we can deliver,” Keselowski continued. “This will be our first Sapphire XC, but as demand for these parts increases, we can easily add more printers to our fleet due to Velo3D’s machine-to-machine repeatability.”

Velo3D said the Sapphire XC has quickly become one of its most popular products since its first shipment in the fourth quarter of 2021. It can print parts up to 600mm in diameter by 550mm in height, the company said.

ADDMAN Engineering purchased a pair of Sapphire XC printers for its Castheon facility in Thousand Oaks, California. Its new printers will help ADDMAN meet the demands of customers in the space, aviation, energy, and defense industries. They are also expected to lower

production costs of 3D printed parts and provide the capabilities to 3D print parts that are reportedly 500 percent larger in volume versus those printed by the original Sapphire printer.

ADDMAN is an experienced contract manufacturer that specializes in additive manufacturing. The company also offers services such as injection molding, laser scanning, and metallurgy and print parameter development, according to the release.

“ADDMAN is one of our top contract manufacturers for aerospace applications, and its purchase of these two Sapphire XC printers will help it service its customers in new ways that empower their businesses,” said Velo3D Vice President of Global Sales and Business Development Zach Murphree, Ph.D., in the release.

ADDMAN’s new Sapphire XC printers are calibrated to print in GRCop-42 and Inconel 718 alloys. GRCop-42 is a copper-based alloy that was developed by NASA for use in regeneratively cooled rocket engines and other applications that require rapid heat transfer. ADDMAN’s new GRCop-42 Sapphire XC printer is its first in this alloy, Velo3D said in the release.

ADDMAN currently operates original Sapphire printers that use Inconel 718, a high-strength nickel-based superalloy that provides oxidation and corrosion resistance at high temperatures. By adding a Sapphire XC in the same alloy, the contract manufacturer can easily help its customers scale up production of parts without requalification or updated designs, according to the release.

“Velo3D’s additive manufacturing technology allows our customers to produce their most complex, highest-performing designs in the highest-quality prints,” said Mark Saberton, CTO at ADDMAN Engineering, in the release. “With these new Sapphire XC printers, we’ll be able to provide our customers with scalable, high-volume production capabilities and larger prints. This will help us keep our competitive advantage and ensure our customers have access to the latest additive manufacturing technology.”

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