Production direct from CAD data removes tooling restraints. Designers and engineers are free to design components with highly complex internal structures, and sophisticated rocket and jet engines are built with fewer parts. Sometimes, the intricate designs possible in 3D-printed components result in staggering reductions in the number of parts required. Since aviation and aerospace designs often require highly complex parts assemblies, any initiative to simplify assembly is welcomed. It saves time and money, and it also reduces potential failure modes through reduced joint welding.
3D printing jet engines for airplanes
The 3D printing of both jet engine prototypes and end-use parts is already having a significant impact on development and production.
The GE90 series of high-bypass turbofan aircraft engines first entered service in 1995. Now, the next-generation GE9X from GE Aviation will use 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles to help power the next generation of wide-body aircraft like the Boeing 777X. The GE9X is the largest and most powerful jet engine ever manufactured — the front fan alone measures 11 feet in diameter. While it is approximately 10 percent more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, it still generates 100,000 pounds of thrust at takeoff.
In April 2016, Airbus took delivery of the first two LEAP-1A engines for its next-generation A320 passenger jet. GE Aviation and France’s Safran are equal partners in the engine’s manufacturer, CFM International. CFM has received more than 12,000 orders for the LEAP engine and its 3D-printed fuel nozzles. A manufacturing facility in Alabama will produce the thousands of nozzles required to fulfill the orders.
Functional prototype testing is often cheaper, simpler and quicker when AM processes are used. In late 2017, in collaboration with the United States Army, GE Aviation completed prototype testing of the Future Affordable Turbine Engine (FATE) engine. Additive manufacturing was key to the design and production of the prototype’s turbine rig. The FATE engine performs at heretofore unknown levels of efficiency and performance. Compared to current engines in the field, it reduces fuel consumption by 35 percent while cutting production and maintenance expenses 45 percent.
The ITEP engine is intended as a drop-in replacement for Apache and Black Hawk helicopters. The engine is to offer 25 percent fuel savings and a 35 percent reduction in production costs. The T901 prototype of the proposed production model makes use of functional prototypes of 3D-printed parts. The use of AM processes in the FATE and ITEP projects builds upon insights acquired in the previous development of the commercial LEAP engine.
When used to produce select lightweight, higher-durability jet engine parts, AM processes deliver a perfect trifecta of simplified design, reduced cost and shortened lead times.
3D printing airplane parts
In April 2015, GE Aviation received its first FAA clearance to use a 3D-printed part in a commercial jet engine. The sensor housing for a compressor inlet temperature sensor is produced by a selective laser sintering (SLS) system. GE contracted with Boeing to use the part in more than 400 GE90-94B engines to be used on Boeing 777 jets.
Jet engine combustors are notoriously difficult to manufacture using traditional means. Using an AM process with cobalt-chrome alloy powder as the build material, high-quality components are fabricated that protect the highly sensitive electronics in the temperature sensor from surging airflows and significant icing inside the engine. AM processes are also being used to fabricate other aircraft parts, including those used in ducting systems.
3D printing in space
In general, manufacturing for space applications requires a very high degree of precision. AM processes like EBM and DMLM excel at producing parts to close tolerances. A high degree of dimensional accuracy is attainable when layers are as thin as 20 or 40 microns, substantially less than the width of a human hair.
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Examples of using additive manufacturing in space and to get to low-earth orbit and beyond are more prevalent than ever. At the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Huntsville, Alabama, NASA researchers designed and printed a functional prototype of a two-piece rocket injector that met the performance parameters of its 163-part predecessor. The highly simplified 3D-printed injector meets strenuous mechanical property and hot fire standards, while reducing manufacturing and assembly times.
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