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Q&A with Eric Barnes of Northrop Grumman, Additive Manufacturing Fellow


We sat down for a question and answer session with Eric Barnes of Northrop Grumman. Barnes currently serves as the Additive Manufacturing Fellow. He has 30 years experience in additive manufacturing and has shared a wealth of experience, advice, and knowledge.

“Looking back to when you first started in the industry, have materials and procedural technologies developed at the rate you expected?”

It took me several years to realize that most technology leaps forward in our industry was based on new uses of old materials or tweaking or combining those materials into new forms.  Combine that with new ways to process those materials and the innovation progresses at stop and start speeds.  It’s hard to say what rate I expected 30 years ago, you never know when a new process like AM is going to come along and accelerate the material and process development.  Composite materials were the “nitrous of the 90’s” and then they stabilized after about 15 years.  AM is still rapidly improving the technologies after 15 years and trying to predict when that will slow down would be anyone’s guess.  But the wide variety of processes and uses of new materials is not slowing down at all, it’s only accelerating.

“Speaking of developments with materials, earlier this year your team was granted a patent for a device and a long-fiber reinforced composite. Congratulations! This patent lists myriad benefits. However, the lean possibilities with this project are seemingly expansive and applicable across the whole of the AM industry. We are so excited to continue to watch this project develop. Do you have any exclusive updates for our readers?”

I wish I could reveal what we are trying to develop right now, but we are still working out the bugs.  The prototype system worked well beyond what we were expecting but quickly highlighted low fruit improvement areas.  We are on a 2.0 version now and are printing some larger and more complex items.  We are keeping specific customers aware of all the progress, and everyone involved keeps coming up with new and great ideas.  So as we make great progress and print more complex items, we simultaneously are trying to build out improvements on almost all facets of the system.  It feels like changing the transmission on a car during the race.  The problem is the improvements kept working so we never get a long enough pit stop to really stand back and realize just how much we have accomplished.

We are planning for a tech reveal later this year which will show off some of the capabilities, so you’ll have to hold off till then.

“We have also heard some inklings of implementation of laser sintered PEKK that Northrop Grumman developed with America Makes. Can you tell us a little bit about that?”

Sure, the development and implementation of PEKK polymer is one of those unheralded national success stories we don’t hear much about. Northrop Grumman led the effort, co-funded by America Makes to develop aerospace design allowables for laser sintered PEKK. Both AFRL and NASA provided program oversight on this project and Hexcel is the AM supplier. This project provided a great foundation for multiple aerospace OEMs to use this AM technology and it is now being used broadly in both DoD and commercial vehicles; satellites, manned space, unmanned vehicles – both air and space, and manned air vehicles.

“Aerospace and Defense manufacturing is often at the very forefront of Industry 4.0 due to its need for a fast turnaround of parts in small batches. What advantages does your patented process lend on the battlefield and in the air?”

I wish I could address that one, but I will have to refer back to my previous answer.  And most of those customers don‘t want us showing what we are doing or planning to do at this time.  It will eventually come out, but that will take a while.

“Last year at RAPID + TCT, we saw an increase in attendees who are in the early stages of AM adoption. They came to learn and explore technologies and solutions for their company, it was amazing proof of an ever-growing industry. Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out in additive?”

Get a small home printer and start playing.  Most of the engineers who are making real flying parts or involved in this tech have printers at home and stretch their understanding by making small parts at home.  Just getting your brain thinking about 3D integrated design and the essence of design for manufacture makes everyone better at the day job.

“Northrop Grumman has so many innovative projects. Switching gears to another exciting development:
Eric Barnes of Northrop Grumman Corporation has also done some research and development on 3D printed electronic components. Is this something that will reach a production-ready phase soon? What are some of the possibilities with this process?”

If you have heard of anything we are working on that probably means parts have already been made.  That said, “Production Ready” is a tough bar to define in the AM world right now as the advantages of a prototype on performance, schedule and cost become too apparent.  So sometimes things help the customer so much a historical production qualification program and the time to accomplish it get in the way.  This is an issue with many AM components now, good enough has a whole new meaning now.

As far as what are the possibilities, that is a trade secret.  Everyone in AM who sees what others are doing or even thinking of will try to replicate or improve on the competition.  The pace of evolution is too fast to tell the world your ideas or plans before they are ready for sale.

“You recently worked with Raytheon on a “breathing” defense project. The aptly named scram jet is 3D printed in its entirety and uses air intake propulsion to exceed Mach 5 speeds. How did AM give your teams the edge in making this project a reality? What advantages does it lend to our defense budget? For example, does the combination of air intake and lighter, more durable AM materials result in less fuel consumption?”

The use of AM enabled the project to go from the initial design concept to testing in much less time.  The consolidation of parts, elimination of long lead assembly activities and ability to make configurations that previously just were not possible, changed the design space.  So when you shorten a build and test cycle that dramatically, the cost of the project goes down, the timeline is shortened, and weight and cost can be significantly reduced.

As far as the air breathing side, any time you can literally capture your oxidizer from the atmosphere, you decrease the required fuel that needs to be carried which in turn allows you to fly much farther.  And as far as durability is concerned, we don’t know the full answer there just yet, but what we have demonstrated far exceeds what is required for an expendable system.

Thank you very much, Eric Barnes and Northrop Grumman for taking the time to share your knowledge and expertise with us. We certainly appreciate this and all you do for SME.

RAPID + TCT is the must-attend event for anyone implementing or exploring additive manufacturing. See the latest innovations, network with like-minded peers and industry experts, and gain insight into the countless possibilities of additive manufacturing, all at one place. With over 400 providers of hardware, software, and materials represented on the show floor, the concentration of 3D technology at RAPID + TCT is unrivaled.