A 3D-printing first for rotorcraft

The Chinook took a 3D-printed, flight-critical part for a spin during test flights

January 19, 2022 in Innovation, Technology

INNOVATIVE ENGINEER: Todd Harder, a Chinook drive systems engineer at the Philadelphia Design Center, uses additive manufacturing to enhance safety and efficiency.


"Light on wheels" and "wheels off ground" were two phrases Todd Harder had been waiting years to hear. A Chinook drive systems engineer, he led the team who developed the first 3D-printed, flight-critical component used in rotorcraft. That part, an additive-manufactured transmission housing, took flight in multiple Chinook tests after years of development and bench testing to prove its airworthiness before it ever left the ground.

SNOWBIRD: A CH-47F Chinook finds a perch in the Alps in Germany. 3D printing could make production of the rotorcraft more efficient.


Additive manufacturing lowered lead times and machining time plus enabled design improvements that improved quality for these Chinook test flights. In the future, additive manufacturing could also help improve component costs and component weight and enable production of spare parts in the field, not just in a factory.

But what exactly is additive manufacturing? And why is this the first time it's ever been used to make a flight-critical part for a rotorcraft? Todd answers these questions and more.

IQ: How does additive manufacturing compare to traditional manufacturing?


TH: Traditionally, for years and years and years, you start with a block of material, and you’re whittling away and whittling away, machining, a lot of different processes to get down to a final geometry. With additive, it turns it on its head.

HISTORIC HOUSING: Flight tests proved this 3D-printed transmission housing could withstand the stress of rotorcraft flight, opening doors for additional 3D-printed advancements for the Chinook.


IQ: Why did you use additive manufacturing for this part?

TH: We wanted to utilize this new technology to create better lead times, to establish the fact that this is applicable technology.

IQ: What's fatigue life, and how is that important when designing additive-manufactured parts?

TH: For rotorcraft, that particular gearbox — or any gearbox in general — you have extremely quickly rotating components that are undergoing a lot of loading and unloading, speaking of gears specifically. But that translates out, of course, to the transmission housing.

TRANSMISSION TEST: Equipped with a 3D-printed transmission housing, this Chinook became the first helicopter to take flight with an additive-manufactured, flight-critical component.


IQ: Other than your team, who helped to make this 3D-printed part happen?

TH: We utilized all this knowledge that we’d accrued over the past several years and really applied it toward this end goal of load-bearing, flight-worthy transmission housings.

MAKING WAVES: U.S. Air Force Special Tactics operators conduct helocast training from the ramp of an MH-47G Chinook in Florida. The advanced helicopter could be enhanced by additive manufacturing.


IQ: What do tests like this mean for the future of Chinook?

TH: There’s a lot of capability within the Chinook platform that’s going to be valuable to our customers in the future.

Discover more about the Chinook here.

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