Guest Post: Additive Manufacturing: Moving Aviation Forward

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Bob McEwan is the general manager for the New Product Introduction (NPI) at GE Aviation.

Just a few decades ago, “manufacturing” would invoke images of an assembly line of workers welding massive pieces of machinery together. Today, you’re probably hearing about “3D printing” and high-tech manufacturing robots that sound quite futuristic. 

Today’s manufacturing reality is evolving to keep pace with changing customer demands and competition. Companies are exploring advanced manufacturing techniques to increase productivity and efficiency.

As products grow more sophisticated, the methods for manufacturing them have also progressed. We’re not in our grandfathers’ manufacturing plant any more. 

One example of this trend is in the aviation industry – something I know quite well as the general manager for New Product Introduction at GE Aviation. Airplane engines are made up of more than 10,000 highly precise components. Precision and the right materials are crucial to developing engines that will reliably move up to nearly 650 million people per day in the U.S. alone.  

The stakes are high, so engine manufacturers like GE Aviation spend a long time making sure each engine and each part is exact. In fact, one engine goes through hundreds of hours of testing before it gets certified and delivered to a customer. 

Today, jet engine components are manufactured using “subtractive” machining methods. Raw materials are cut into a desired shape through turning, drilling, milling and grinding. Subtractive machining techniques are precise, but they are confined within the limits of the machine, tools or apparatus.

Subtractive manufacturing has been the gold standard in manufacturing, but now many companies – including GE Aviation – are looking at additive manufacturing to create precise parts. Additive manufacturing is sometimes known as “3D printing,” and there are many benefits to it:

·         Minimal waste: Additively manufactured parts are “grown” from the ground up, resulting in little to no material waste.

·         Efficiency: In many cases, additive manufacturing creates parts more quickly than subtractive manufacturing with fewer steps and tools, and with a more cost-effective assembly.

·         Flexibility: While subtractive manufacturing techniques are confined to tools, molds and apparatuses, additive manufacturing allows the engineer to make more complex geometries as well as manufacture prototype components for testing and analysis.

·         Quality: State material properties are better than castings and very similar to wrought materials.

·         Lighter: Printed parts can be made lighter than forged parts, which translate into lighter jet engines and fuel savings for aircraft.

There are many forms of additive manufacturing, but GE Aviation is focused on a specific additive technology called direct metal laser melting (DMLM), which precisely melts fine layers of metal powders layer by layer from the bottom up until the build is complete.  These layers measure less than .001 of an inch and the machines run “lights out” with 24/7 continuous operation.

This is a model jet engine using the selective laser melting technique. It has moving parts that were printed in an assembled state, so no fitting or welds were required.

Watch this video to learn more about how GE Aviation is using additive manufacturing: 

Last week, GE Aviation was at the Paris Air Show, where we had a small MakerBot 3D printer on view to demonstrate how engine parts can be created through the additive manufacturing process.

We’re planning to produce fuel nozzles tips using this manufacturing technique, and these parts will be a part of the LEAP engine, due to go into planes by 2016. There are 19 nozzles in each engine, and two engines per plane. We anticipate that by 2020, well over 100,000 parts in GE and CFM engines will be produced through additive manufacturing.

I believe product innovation will increasingly go hand-in-hand with manufacturing innovation. Applying additive manufacturing processes to jet engine design is just one of many steps in this direction, so keep an eye out for exciting new manufacturing innovations to come.

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