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Wichita State researchers aim to prepare Air Capital suppliers for 3D printing future

How a WSU research grant will help keep Wichita the Air Capital

Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, announces a $2 million economic development grant for Wichita State University. He and school research officials say the grant will help keep Wichita the Air Capital of the World. (March 22, 2019)
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Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, announces a $2 million economic development grant for Wichita State University. He and school research officials say the grant will help keep Wichita the Air Capital of the World. (March 22, 2019)

A new partnership between researchers at Wichita State University and a national manufacturing organization aims to prepare the city’s aerospace supply chain for the future.

The National Institute for Aviation Research at Wichita State was announced Tuesday as the third satellite center of America Makes. John Tomblin, WSU vice president for research and technology transfer, said the partnership will advance polymer and metal additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, in the aviation industry.

“There’s two ways to manufacture something,” Tomblin said. “You can do it the way we’ve traditionally done it in Wichita, which is subtractive manufacturing. So you start with a block of metal and then you take away what you don’t want to form a part.

“Additive is just the reverse of that. I want the same part, but I’m only going to add material where I need it. So it’s the 3D printing equivalent, but we can print metals as well.”

Subtractive is still the primary manufacturing method used in the aerospace industry, but it has limitations, Tomblin said. There’s the waste of metal chips lying on the floor, and engineers are limited in the parts they can design — especially hollow ones. Additive manufacturing also allows engineers to improve the performance of parts while making them lighter.

“(With additive) you can form geometries that are not possible to make with the subtractive process,” he said. “I mean, with an additive process you really truly can make whatever your mind or the computer generates.”

The research partnership also aims to make additive manufacturing cheaper.

“That’s one of the benefits of this partnership is really getting the industry together and getting the suppliers together,” Tomblin said. “The more people that use it, naturally the cost comes down. Right now it is expensive.”

Additive manufacturing is a “transformational technology” for the military, said Steve Linder, the special assistant for manufacturing for the Secretary of Defense.

“Today is was also made very clear to me that NIAR really understands the connection between national security and economic security, the importance of advanced manufacturing to making the U.S. more competitive in these various different technologies,” he said. “And in the long run, it provides the war-fighting capability to ensure that our war-fighters never find themselves in a fair fight — that they will always have the capability to prevail in any conflict with any of our adversaries.”

America Makes is a national organization that facilitates partnerships among about 220 public and private members connected to additive manufacturing and 3D printing technology innovation. Wichita State joins Texas A&M and the University of Texas at El Paso as satellite centers. John Wilczynski, the executive director of America Makes, said NIAR is the first industry-specific satellite center.

The research at NIAR has the potential to benefit the aerospace supply chain in the Wichita area.

“If we want to stay cutting-edge, we want to make sure that we make the lightest, strongest, most efficient aircraft in the world,” Tomblin said. “And if it leans to be additive, then we want to be able to make it here in Wichita, and we want to have the supply base here to make additive parts.”

“We have about 100-plus machine shops that exist in the county,” Tomblin said. “Lots of machines work here. If you think about utilizing that supply chain and keeping it current with what the future is doing ... we want to be prepared. We’re the No. 1 manufacturing community in the United States. ... If we see the industry start to shift to additive, we want to make sure that our suppliers and our people here in our region can do additive as well. We want to maintain the No. 1 ranking, we still want to be the Air Capital of the World in the future.”

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