The C-27J Spartan is a high-performance tactical transport aircraft equipped with intelligent defense technologies. It is capable of carrying up to 60 passengers or up to 9 tonnes of cargo, and has a take-off weight of up to 31,800 kg under certain conditions. Manufactured by Alenia Aermacchi, the C27J is adopted not only by the Italian Air Force but also by many other air forces around the world, such as those of the United States and Australia. It is powered by two Rolls Royce turboprop engines with peculiar, scimitar-shaped propellers. It is a jewel of Italian aviation, one that Avio Aero has contributed to with its additive manufacturing technology. But for the first time, our contribution—and particularly that of our team at the Cameri plant—had nothing to do with the propulsive apparatus, but rather the wings of this great airplane. The new C-27J Spartan, which is currently in the qualification phase, is equipped with three components at the end of its wings: the winglet retainer, winglet tip and winglet fitting (the photo shows exactly where the parts are fitted). These components are made in Cameri by Avio Aero using the DMLS (direct laser material sintering) process, which represents an innovative and responsive solution to the customer's requirements. "The components are small in relation to the size of the aircraft, but have advantages in terms of their weight and unique designs. They are appreciated by the customer, who is ready to implement them on the new C27Js that will enter production from 2016," explained Carolina De Fazio, Civil and Military Commercial Operations Additive Manufacturing Manager at Cameri. It has therefore been challenging insofar as it was the first time ever that our team had to deal with a purely aerodynamic component, rather than one that was inside the engine. "Building and designing it has required a lot of study and commitment," said Tiziano Beltrami, Technical leader of the project, "because in many aspects of the component, the dimensional constraints and variables were numerous." On this occasion we made a point of listening carefully to our customer. In particular, we had the opportunity to interview Marco Antonio Borsi, Deputy Head of Design Organization for military defense aircraft at Alenia Aermacchi.
How long have you known about Avio Aero and what is your general impression of our company?
I've known about it for a very long time, since 1976, when it was still Fiat Aviazione and I was a student at the Polytechnic. I'd done a one-month internship in the technical offices, then I went to Via Nizza to see the former factory. Even back then, I remember that it was a technologically advanced firm. Colleagues who have visited Avio Aero tell me that it's even more technologically advanced now. As demonstrated by the fact that you have these innovative technologies, but most importantly the expertise to use them by applying them to the product.
Talking of the C27J Spartan program, what characteristics or information what characteristics or information would you like to highlight and describe to us? The C27 is a machine that has had a lot of commercial success and is used by many of our customers around the world. It is often used even in extreme conditions. Our company has made investments into this aircraft, and continues to make investments, including in the development of this solution, the winglet. Being in the aviation industry, we always pay attention to emerging technologies, and additive manufacturing is one such technology. We've used it for the first time on this project, but it definitely has very high potential.
The wings of this aircraft are equipped with three components made using additive manufacturing at our plant in Cameri. In your experience, what are the benefits, as well as the general considerations, of relying on new technology instead of using traditional production processes?
These components have quite complex geometric characteristics, even if they look like nondescript parts. The advantages of additive manufacturing are that it eliminates all the geometrical problems that designers face, because it enables them to create objects that don't exist in the normal world. For example, I saw a ball encased inside another ball, made using additive manufacturing because there would be no other way to do it. Unless you split the ball in two, put the other one inside and then closed it again. Whereas, this can be made from a single piece, in a single process. In the world of aviation, weight is the one variable that all designers lose sleep over: by removing these geometric constraints, additive manufacturing technologies make it possible to devise integrated structures that have big advantages in terms of weight. If we had made one of these components using traditional processes (with a numeric control machine, for example), it's very likely to have been heavier because we wouldn't have been able to hollow out the thinner, head-to-reach areas. This technology is extremely promising, in my opinion it's just starting to show its immense potential to designers, who are gradually discovering its possibilities. We expect big things from this technology, hence why we deliberately chose to try applying it on this project because it offered us the opportunity to do so.
In terms of speed of response to redesigns, modifications and revisions to models or to the project, as well as in collaborative terms, what's your view on the performance offered by Avio Aero?
We've really appreciated Avio Aero's ability to see ideas and translate them into models, discuss them, and quickly verify changes and their impact on the construction process. So we've had an extremely positive experience and we‘re very satisfied.
What do you think are the main improvement areas that Avio Aero could concentrate on, and the inputs for future collaborations? As manufacturers in the aircraft industry, we are always dealing with objects of considerable size. One current limitation of additive technology, or rather of the machines that it involves, is the size of the vats used to make the parts. In order to have significant applications in the aviation field we think that the world of additive manufacturing, and not just Avio Aero, should be using larger machines. This is so that it can be applied to parts for which there are huge potential benefits, but that's not achievable right now because the objects that can be produced are small. Another area where we believe it is very important to develop—in the additive sector as a whole and not just in terms of Avio Aero—is that of applicable materials: the availability of materials with excellent mechanical properties, machined using these processes, would be a major plus. We are very interested to see and verify such materials and this advancement, and possibly even alternatives, just to try to understand better where to apply this technology, which we think still has great untapped potential. And we really hope to discover that in future.