The production of 3D printed parts in GE aircraft is a sign of the shift happening across a number of industries that are looking to use additive manufacturing to create production-ready parts.
This year, GE Aviation will include 3D printed parts within the CFM Leap aircraft engines, produced jointly by GE and time partner Snecma, of France. The engines will include 19 3D printed fuel nozzles in the combustion system. The nozzles couldn’t be manufactured using traditional methods, according to a GE statement.
That news comes as Airbus Group announced this month that it will be adding the 3DExperience design platform from Dassault Systems to its additive manufacturing programs.
Airbus will use the modeling software to digitally simulate the tooling and prototyping of parts for test flights and production use on commercial aircraft.
By 2018, Airbus expects to print about 30 tons metal parts every month, according to a company statement.
Additive manufacturing—also called 3D printing—allows Airbus to create, test and analyze new designs that had previously been impossible to develop. With this virtual approach, Airbus reduces the waste and cost that are associated with manufacturing complex aircraft parts without sacrificing strength or performance, according to a company statement.
Additive manufacturing systems are increasingly popular for these type of applications, said Terry Wohlers, president of consultiancy Wohlers Associates of Fort Collins, Colo.
“Companies such as Airbus, General Electric, and Lima Corp. are using these machines to produce complex metal parts for next-generation aerospace and medical products,” he said.
Printer manufacturer Stratasys has said its printers had been used to produce more than 1,000 flight parts for the Airbus A350 XWB aircraft, delivered in December 2014. Components produced with this method are also included within Airbus already-in-service jetliners in the A300/A310 family, according to Airbus.
And earlier this year, Airbus and Autodesk announced they’d worked together to prototype and 3D print a partition to separate the passenger cabin from the galley. For use on the A320 planes, the partition is structurally strong but lightweight, weighing 45 percent less than current designs.
The first phase of testing is complete and the partition will be further tested this year, including a test flight on board an A320.
The benefits of printing these parts are numerous.
Printed parts are lighter, faster to produce and less expensive than conventional parts. The nozzles are also hollow on the inside and couldn’t have been produced using conventional subtractive methods, according to Airbus.
The parts weight 30 to 55 percent less than traditionally manufactured parts, reduce raw material used by 90 percent, and decreases total energy used in production by up to 90 percent compared to traditional methods, said Peter Sander of Airbus’s Innovation Cell. Sanders’ group investigates and promotes emerging technologies.
The method could reduce weight on each aircraft by more than one ton, he added.
And other industries are poised to follow the aircraft makers’ lead, particularly those in the medical and dental fields, where the method is already used to create one-off crowns, bridges, stone models, and orthodontic appliances customized to the patient.
Though aviation is the first GE business where additive technologies are being applied, GE scientists are also developing applications for other GE businesses as well, the company said. Engineers there are considering 3D printing for use in prototyping turbomachinery pump parts and as part of the production of a low-cost ultrasound transducer.
Additive manufacturing would allow the intricate patterns on the transducer’s probe face to be printed at one time, as opposed to the micromachining techniques used today, GE said.
After all, if a printed part is safe enough for an airplane engine, it’s safe enough for a dental crown.