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Current State and Future Directions of Composites Additive Manufacturing for Limited Life Aircraft Structure

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Conference Abstract: Composite materials offer attractive strength and stiffness characteristics, making them ideal for lightweight aircraft structure. Current commercial approaches to composites manufacturing rely on tooling and extensive hands-on labor, leading to high cost and limited geometry that can be fabricated. These shortcomings are particularly limiting when manufacturing limited runs of products that need to be tailored to multiple use cases, thereby eliminating the benefits of tooling and economies of scale. This is exactly the situation facing the US Air Force as the demand for autonomous systems to address a multitude of missions grows. To address these limitations for future systems and to enable agile, adaptable, and scalable processing options, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) has pursued additive manufacturing of composites, with a particular focus on continuous fiber printing. Continuous fiber composites printing offers an elegant means to generate complex shapes, to reinforce parts by leveraging the inherent anisotropy of fiber deposition, and to enable a manufacturing paradigm dominated by digital engineering and distributed production. However, these benefits are yet to be fully realized because of a host of design, material, processing, and integration challenges. This presentation will describe recent advances within AFRL and with our partners to mature composites additive manufacturing and apply it to the Department of Air Force imperative to deliver affordable mass via limited life aircraft, will explore technology gaps identified in the course of these projects, and will discuss future maturation objectives to establish composites AM as a critical capability for DoD and industry.