GE-The Print-a-Plane Journey Starts Here

by GE Reports

Think about the last time you flew on an aeroplane. You probably picked your destination, packed your bags and finally printed your ticket to show at the check in desk before you boarded. But what about if the plane itself was printed, albeit on a larger industrial scale?

Top engineers are already on their way to developing the flying machine of the future. And they’re printing it piece by piece.

The first place to start is with the engine, and that’s where most of the work is currently being done to help 3D printing take off. The engine is an ideal place to perfect 3D printing for aviation because it’s such a demanding part of the aircraft. It generates a lot of power and reaches high temperatures – up to 750 Celsius. Once you can use 3D printing, using additive manufacturing techniques here, it represents huge progress.

Image courtesy of GE

Image courtesy of GE

That’s exactly what Avio Aero, a part of GE’s aviation business, is doing. It has developed a new factory solely dedicated to 3D aircraft parts in Cameri, close to the company’s headquarters in Turin, Italy. It’s the largest factory in the world for this type of manufacturing. Today, they’re able to use additive manufacturing to create the turbine blades for aircrafts along with other components such as exhaust components. The company says the technology will contribute to the change in how aeroplanes are made in the future.

“What we’re seeing here is a real technological and cultural shift. Our engineers don’t start from the limits any more – they start with a geometrical freedom. They can think about the components in a new way. Previously, when creating the combustor injector, for example, they would have to cast separate pieces and then put them together through fusion. Now, they can design them in one piece and create them in one piece through additive manufacturing,” explains Marco Magli, Head of Media & External Relations from Avio Aero.

“Additive manufacturing is more effective, gives more opportunity to design new things and gives a step ahead in the innovation of next generation engines.”

But if this type of printing isn’t akin to that seen in the average office, how exactly does it work? It all begins with a powder – titanium aluminide in the case of the electron beam melting (EBM) technology by Avio Aero. After the part has been designed digitally, the powder is layered in the form that is an exact replica of the computer design. The EBM process developed by Avio Aero with Arcam from Sweden enables the layered powder to become the finished component.

Avio Aero’s new site is the next step in a journey that started with research ten years ago. Back then the company was working with local institutions such as the Polytechnic University of Turin to find improved manufacturing solutions. The need for enhancements was escalated further when the entire aviation industry was challenged by the EU to lower the emissions, noise and fuel consumption of next generation aircraft engines.

Additive manufacturing is an important part of Avio Aero’s response as the process holds a number of advantages over the traditional casting procedure.

Magli continued, “We knew that if we started to produce the blades with a new lighter metallic alloy, we could gain a real competitive advantage from additive manufacturing. This is because it uses less material and the rough components are 50% lighter, which saves energy because of the reduced time needed to fine tune the products. We’re able to produce top quality products with many advantages. This is the future.”

GE already has 3D printed parts in action thanks to the company’s LEAP engine that it launched on test flights last year. This particular project was the result of a joint venture between GE and Safran from France and it’s estimated that this type of engine could save an airline as much as $1.6 million in fuel costs per plane per year.

As things stand, there are still technological limits to additive manufacturing that limits the use of 3D printing on more parts of an aircraft. However, prototypes are being developed all the time that could see the next generation future of design become a reality. Casting will continue to be used alongside additive manufacturing for the time being but the new ways of making components will make flying greener than ever.

About GE Reports
GE Reports is a daily, award-winning online magazine published by GE. The website and its companion Twitter handle feature stories about innovation, science and technology, as well as viewpoints on important issues regarding GE and the world.  http://www.gereports.com/

About GE
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