WASHINGTON — Boeing plans to begin testing a full 3D-printed main rotor system for the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter in the spring of next year as part of an effort to cut out long-lead times and improve the overall supply chains for parts that are typically forged, according to company officials.

At the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual conference last week, a Boeing and ASTRO America team displayed its first 3D part — a main rotor link assembly — printed on what is currently the world’s largest 3D metal printer at Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.

ASTRO, a nonprofit funded by the U.S. government, won a $95 million contract from the Army’s Ground Vehicle Systems Center to provide engineering support to develop additive manufacturing capabilities of large-size, large-scale parts including entire hulls for tanks and other combat vehicles as well as other prototype parts, explained ASTRO engineer Emma Gallegos.

That effort — called the Jointless Hull Project — involves a machine that is big enough to print an entire, single-piece M1 Abrams tank hull, she said.

The 3D-printed main rotor link assembly took 45 minutes to deposit the 6,000 series aluminum and eight hours to print. The typical lead time to traditionally forge the part is one year, according to Andy Pfeiffer, an engineering design lead and additive manufacturing expert for Boeing Global Services.

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