One thing you can be sure of, when America fields a missile system the work to make it better never stops. Developing prototype parts, and testing their performance is a regular and repetitive process. It can be time-consuming, but the quicker you can make the parts, the quicker you can test them, and re-test them.
"I can fabricate my parts a lot faster. I can go through that design, build and test cycle much more rapidly using additive manufacturing, than I can with traditional machining," says Joe Sims, Director of Propulsion Engineering for ASRC Federal.
Additive manufacturing is better known as 3D printing. In the case of the ASRC printer, a laser strikes a layer of metal powder and turns specific areas into solid metal. It happens one layer at a time. It's like building a cake with each layer half the thickness of a piece of paper. The printer is directed by a computer program, which contains the design and measurements of the part that is being built. The complexity of parts that can be built using 3D printing makes old style machining almost obsolete.
"The laser doesn't make mistakes. It builds exactly what you tell it to build," says Thomas Haymond, a Materials Engineer for ASRC.
The printer at ASRC costs a little less than $1 million, and it's the only commercial printer utilizing metals in Alabama. ASRC hopes to have more printers in the not too distant future.
"This is not something that's a fad now, and three years from now we'll never hear about it again. This is going to become the new normal," says Joe Sims.
It's already the best way to make complicated parts. The idea is to take it from being a novelty to being a mainstay of manufacturing. "We use the term additive manufacturing because we want people to think about manufacturing actual hardware. We don't want them to think we're using this to build simple models. We're using this to build actual pieces that can be used day-to-day," says Stephen Cook, an aerospace engineer at ASRC.
Additive manufacturing does still have some doubters. Right now, the ASRC facility does make some parts to test the process, and the materials for clients. Still, it does appear to be the wave of the future, and the parts that have already been made are spectacular in their complexity.