3-D printed part from an airplane turbine

Yesterday, we posted a tech memoir by Steven Ashley about the slow rise of 3D printing — from sci-fi fantasy, to toy, to creator of real tools. Towards the end of the piece, Ashley mentions how GE is starting manufacture aircraft engine parts using 3D printers. Here's the excerpt:

Rows of industrial 3D-printing units in plants will soon be fabricating turbine engine parts—fuel nozzles—from cobalt-chromium alloy powders. Each one of GE’s new LEAP jet engine will contain nineteen of the fuel nozzles, which are up to 25 percent lighter and five-times more durable than traditionally manufactured fuel nozzles. In airplanes cutting weight saves fuel. The LEAP engine has already amassed more than 4,500 orders, so between it and the new GE9X engine, the corporation could end up making as many as 100,000 additive manufactured components by 2020.

In the picture above, you can see one of those fuel nozzles, in all its 3D-printed glory.

It's also worth noting, Ashley says, that 3D printing your airplane parts can allow you to design pieces that cut out unnecessary weight in ways that other manufacturing processes can't. In this next photo, you'll see two versions of the same bracket — the one on the left was 3D printed. It's full of holes and has rounded, rather than square, corners, both of which represent the reduction of unneeded material that you couldn't easily do away with in any other way.

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  1. Laser sintering, probably.  Powdered metal is fused by a moving laser beam.  It’s slow and I don’t know how the energy input compares to casting, forging or subtractive manufacture (machining) but it can produce very detailed shapes.  It’s not used much but we’re seeing more of it in the laser industry.  More frequently, additive applications are used to apply a layer of dissimilar material on a surface of a part.

    1. The company they acquired in December 2012 that does metal printing – Morris Technologies – used laser sintering and electron beam melting.

    2. According to a video I saw, metal powder-fabricated parts are sintered in a kiln, not as they are being fabricated. So it’s a two-step process, and no ludicrously high-energy lasers are involved.

  2. This is great, assuming (which I’m sure they do) that they keep in mind the difference in strength between forged parts and sintered parts.

  3. This is great, assuming (which I’m sure they do) that they keep in mind the difference in strength between forged parts and sintered parts.

  4. ” It’s full of holes and has rounded, rather than square, corners, both of which represent the reduction of unneeded material that you couldn’t easily do away with in any other way.”

    Unless you had a milling machine.

    1.  3-D printing can create voids that are completely enclosed, shaving weight where no milling machine can.

    2.  There are indeed lots of ways to get there. I suppose in any individual case it’s up to the engineers, bean counters, and the particular machines a manufacturer has invested in.

    3. In reply to all: that doesn’t seem to be the case with this piece: it’s a very straightforward milling task, from what can be seen. Obviously, they’re doing it for good reasons, but the reasons might not be the ones cited.

      Expense also equates to time, and I’m wondering what the through-put is on a sintering machine vs a milled casting. 

      As far as voids goes, that’s a plus point, but uninspectable areas would be a problem in some cases. OTOH, they can probably photograph the whole thing as it’s created, so that might deal with that.

      It’s totally cool, but milling is still pretty good technology.

  5. First airplanes, then race cars, then cars. There’s going to be a revolution in manufacturing in the next 20 years. I wish I was 30 years younger!

    1.  The “revolution” is happening more or less constantly, and always has been.  Tech is constantly evolving, perhaps not always big leaps of punctuated equilibrium such that the technology of 3d printing may represent, but it is constantly improving. 

      And…  you don’t have to be 30 years younger to participate or see the fruits of the process…

      1. Oh, it has nothing to do with additive manufacturing — I just wish I was 30 years younger….

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