The 3D Printing Synergy of TransDigm’s Acquisition of Esterline
Peter Saenz and Charles Goulding of R&D Tax Savers discuss 3D printing implications of TransDigm’s acquisition of Esterline.
On October 10th TransDigm Group Incorporated and Esterline Technologies Corporation announced that TransDigm will purchase Esterline for approximately $4.0 billion, including debt. This acquisition will add Esterline’s core business segments – namely, Advanced Materials, Avionics & Controls, and Sensors & Systems – to TransDigm’s product lineup. Not only will TransDigm have access to numerous new products, they will also receive access to new manufacturing equipment and expertise. The procurement of 3D printing equipment and know-how is of practical significance, especially during a time when the aviation industry is starting to fully realize the impact of 3D printed prototypes and end products.
Of particular importance is Esterline’s advanced materials division. Esterline has extensive competencies in the development of elastomer products for commercial aerospace, space, and military applications, as well as an established knowledge base in the development of highly engineered thermal components for commercial aerospace and industrial applications. Esterline spent $103 million in research and development engineering in fiscal year 2017, which is up from $95.9 million in 2016. TransDigm will be benefitting immensely from these investments.
Expertise in material science and a track record for making advanced materials that operate in mission critical applications will be extremely important for the proliferation of 3D printed finished products in the aerospace industry. Historically, 3D printing has been used to develop prototypes as well as elements, such as fixtures and molds, to help reduce the cost and time to manufacture parts. More recently, however, 3D printing technology has been utilized to develop end products that will be used on commercial aircraft.
For the moment, the 3D printing of aviation end products will be reserved for less critical elements. This is partially due to challenges related to the reality of meeting manufacturing standards. Even if a 3D printed component meets all regulatory and quality standards, it still has to undergo first article inspection (FAI) to ensure that the new additive manufacturing method produces the component to the same standards as conventional manufacturing processes. The FAI process can be very expensive and time consuming, thus preventing a more rapid adoption of 3D printing and additive manufacturing technologies in the aerospace industry.
Another reason 3D printing currently cannot be used to develop the majority of aircraft components is because the materials being used to 3D print parts do not have the properties required to be used in critical areas. More research is required in order to develop and verify materials that have the same creep, strain, fatigue, and thermal properties as conventional materials. Problems related to material shortcomings have been encountered in other industries as well. For example, in the biomedical industry, researchers face challenges when developing airtight enclosures due to the porous nature of 3D printed materials. It is expected that issues such as this would be commonplace in the aerospace industry given the extreme stresses that parts undergo during flight.
Esterline’s expertise in material development will prove invaluable in the creation of the next generation of 3D printing materials that possess the properties necessary to develop everything from avionics to aircraft propulsion systems. One of the first materials that may be modified for 3D printing are the elastomer materials that Esterline manufactures, some of which are used in critical zones that are in close proximity to jet engines. Esterline knowledge of lightweight metal, insulation and combustible ordinance and warfare countermeasure devices may also be invaluable in the development of new 3D printable materials.
This 3D printing technology knowledge transfer can significantly help TransDigm reengineer their connectors and elastomers. Furthermore, 3D printing can be used to improve any one of TransDigm’s products, including but not limited to:
Actuators and controls
Ignition systems and engine technology
Specialized pumps and valves
Motors and generators
Latching and locking devices
Rods and locking devices
Cockpit security components and systems
Specialized cockpit displays
TransDigm’s acquisition of Esterline is just one of many recent transactions that are reshaping the aerospace industry; the competitive nature of this industry fosters consolidation left and right. United Technologies Corporation is in the process of acquiring Rockwell Collins, Boeing recently purchased KLX Inc., and Northrop Grumman Corporation has absorbed Orbital ATK. These are just a few examples of consolidations that are resulting in the sharing of 3D printing trade secrets and ingenuity, which will ultimately lead to synergistic developments that will quicken the use of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry.