Ultrasonic Welding Manufactures Parts for NASA Missions and Commercial Industry
Why combine different metals?
Protecting electronic components from the intense space radiation that can destroy them is a challenge when everything on a spaceship has to be light. This is a problem that Roberts is trying to solve using new materials. Additional SBIR funding provided by NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, paid Fabrisonic to add layers of radiation-resistant metallic tantalum to the middle of the spacecraft’s aluminum parts.
Unlike other forms of welding, UAM will not cause different metals to liquefy and mix. Engineers can rely on the properties of each metal to remain constant and perform as intended, said Mark Norfolk, president of Fabrisonic. This quality demonstrated that NASA could achieve its goal of combining aluminum with tantalum.
The ability to fuse layers of different metals also has benefits for customers in the oil and gas industry, who now depend on various Fabrisonic parts for drilling, Norfolk noted. One is a well drill pipe – a thin-walled hollow tube that combines different materials and uses built-in sensors.
Why put sensors inside metal?
New fiber optic sensors can detect stresses or weaknesses in metal and predict possible failures before they occur. But metal made using traditional methods can only support these sensors outside the room. In an attempt to embed them, the heat used in the manufacturing process would destroy delicate appliances.
Other SBIR funding of Langley helped Fabrisonic, still as a subcontractor to Sheridan, test the effectiveness of sensors embedded inside aluminum parts by ultrasonic welding. After some trial and error to find the best sensors for such an innovative application, engineers were able to obtain precise, real-time data on the health and performance of the metal. Because the sensors are protected, they can operate in harsh environments. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which conducts energy and nuclear research, is successfully using Fabrisonic’s integrated sensors in its facilities. In NASA aeronautical tests, these Fabrisonic sensors help detect weaknesses and performance issues in commercial airframes.
What if I want to print small parts myself?
Meanwhile, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., Funded Fabrisonic’s exploration of the use of advanced metallic materials and UAMs for fabrication in space, this time as subcontractor of phases I and II. SBIR contracts with a machine automation company called Ultra Tech Machinery Inc. Agency engineers worked with Fabrisonic to develop a small UAM printer for use on the space station. The company had a design ready but didn’t know if it would work. NASA specifications made it possible to build, test and refine the most important component of the printer – the weld head. This part transfers the ultrasonic vibrations to the metal tape used in the printer.
Miniaturizing this technology to manufacture smaller parts offers a more cost effective approach than using an industrial UAM process. Commercial sales of the company’s resulting SonicLayer 1200 printer generated $ 1 million in revenue, with one customer producing more than 70,000 parts in-house.
The commercial success has allowed the company to develop a diverse customer base and to double in size, growing to 12 employees.
“Without SBIR and other government backers, Fabrisonic might not have crossed the chasm between start-up and commercial success,” Norfolk said. “This has enabled important research and development. It provides critical information, such as material characterization data and case studies that help disseminate the technology. “
NASA has a long history of transferring technology to the private sector. The agency’s Spinoff publication showcases NASA’s technologies that have evolved into commercial products and services, demonstrating the broader benefits of U.S. investment in its space program. Spinoff is a publication of the Technology Transfer Program of NASA’s Space Technology Missions Directorate.
For more information on how NASA is bringing space technology to Earth, visit: