Huge, 3D printed airplane parts in China

GE isn't the only one getting into the 3D-printed airplane part game. But, instead of little fuel injectors for turbines, the Chinese company AVIC Heavy Machinery and China's Northwestern Polytechnical University are printing off 5-meter-long titanium wing spars and equally long wing beams. (Thanks, Tim Heffernan!)


    1.  The captions in the links are a little confusing, so to clarify: link 1 shows a wing beam/spar, and link 2 shows what I am quite sure is a bulkhead, a structural fuselage component. There would be a number of them inside a given plane — at least four, judging by the inset in the photograph. The J-20’s and J-31’s twin engines would run through the large holes in the bulkheads, and both the engines and wings would be anchored to them.

    1. Yep, writing about the HPP is what first got me interested in large-scale, ultra-critical metalforming. In my BoingBoing post there’s a before-and-after photo of large titanium bulkheads for the F-15; they’re the same sort of component pictured in the first link in Maggie’s post on printed parts. I have a lot of questions about the physical characteristics of forged vs printed parts, and assume there are unique benefits to each process. (I also wonder whether the printed bulkhead comes out of the printer in its final form or needs additional machining, like the forged bulkheads do.)  But there’s no question AVIC is doing seriously impressive, technically brilliant work.

      1. Good question about additional machining. I would guess – and I”m no expert – that in most cases there would be at least a little extra machining needed to do things like clean out and tap bolt holes. That wing spar looks like it’s got a rough texture, so maybe some parts would need a little cleaning up overall too, although a rough texture may not matter in areas that don’t come into tight contact with other parts.

        From a metallurgy know-nothing like me, it seems that pieces forged in those huge presses, like the F-15 bulkheads, would be stronger than 3D-printed parts. But I’m lucky if I can get a resume to print successfully on the first attempt…

      2. Well, the printed bulkhead is clearly a CNC machined component, not a 3D printed one. It’s covered in machining marks.

  1. This type of additive manufacturing can produce parts with finely controlled microstructures and can be used to produce parts just as strong as any other process.

    I’ve heard of the same tech being used to hardface mining equipment resulting in better than original performance. I’ve also heard of it being used to repair power station turbine blades.

    It doesn’t usually leave a nice surface finish and the printing resolution isn’t that great but it is used to produce full strength parts that will require a bit of post working for a final finish. It is for much more serious work than a quick & dirty prototype.

    1.  Thanks, Henry, that’s all really interesting. I have hardfaced the teeth of a backhoe with a simple arc-welder…didn’t get quite the same performance gains as what you describe, I’d wager!

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