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Air Force, small business partnership yields blade health monitoring technology

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- A cost-saving and risk-mitigating technology for scanning engine rotor blades developed by the Air Force and a small business recently resulted in awards of more than $5 million.

Blade Diagnostics Corporation, or BDC, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, received the awards for its SmartBlend System, which performs a virtual engine vibration test on integrally bladed rotors, or IBRs, and scans the edges of the blades to measure damage.

The technology also earned BDC an exclusive agreement with Siemens Energy, Inc., which will use it to monitor the health of their land-based power systems.

Traditionally, aircraft engines contained bladed disks that were constructed by inserting individual blades onto a central hub and blades damaged in service could be replaced. However, bladed disks used in modern aircraft fans and compressors are constructed using a new single-piece design, called an IBR. Unlike bladed disks, if an IBR is damaged beyond repair, the entire rotor, which can range in cost from $150,000 to nearly $500,000, is replaced.

“Unnecessary part replacement is extremely costly, but leaving a damaged part in service and risking system failure isn’t an option for us either,” said 2nd Lt. Chris Faxon, the Air Force program’s manager. “Technologies like SmartBlend, with the potential to extend the lifecycles of critical aircraft engine components, are increasingly important developments and possible game-changing capabilities. Incorporation of this kind of technology in an aircraft repair cycle offers the potential for millions in cost-savings.”

Seeking to reduce sustainment costs, the Air Force sought an inexpensive process for safely repairing IBRs. The standard process for repairing IBR damage is to machine (“blend out”) the damage, which reduces the stress concentration and partially restores aerodynamic efficiency. However, the blending approach changes the dynamic properties of the IBR and increases the risk of failure from high cycle fatigue (HCF). Currently, HCF is an important factor that limits the size, location and number of blends that can be used to repair damaged IBRs.

The recent Air Force awards extend the current SmartBlend technology’s contract to determine how data provided by the technology can be integrated with repair processes. The resulting data will determine whether rotors can be repaired safely or should be replaced, which will lead to lower sustainment costs.

Development of this technology began as an Air Force Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, effort. Under the SBIR program, the Air Force had requested a technology to monitor the health of the IBR and its blades at the Air Logistics Complex in Oklahoma City, or OC-ALC, Oklahoma, where aircraft engines are disassembled, cleaned, inspected, repaired and reassembled. Now BDC’s SmartBlend System has been integrated by the OC-ALC into its repair processes for the F119 engine. Because the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s F135 engine is similar to the F119, the SmartBlend system could be adapted to that engine, reducing fleet sustainment costs on those engines as well.

The Air Force’s SBIR program was established by Congress in 1982 to fund research and development through small businesses. The SBIR program focuses on projects with the potential to develop into a product for defense or commercial markets. Congress also established the Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR Program in 1992. It is similar in structure to SBIR and funds cooperative research and development projects with small businesses in partnership with not-for profit research institutions (such as universities) to move research to the marketplace.

For more information about these programs, including commercialization readiness assistance for existing contracts, visit the program website at www.afsbirsttr.com.

(Information courtesy of an 88th Air Base Wing Office of Public Affairs news release)

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