These days you couldn’t swing a dead cat in a community college or magnet school without hitting a 3-D printer. Certainly this isn’t a new technology, but its use in manufacturing is rapidly gaining momentum. 3-D printing, or additive manufacturing, has the potential to significantly improve the process of product design and manufacturing.
The technology will be especially significant in the aerospace industry, where a simple component upgrade can take years from design through installation. It can also increase MRO turn-around rates, which will increase commercial and especially military fleet availability, while decreasing costs associated with a relatively prolonged MRO process.
GE recently began retrofitting 400 GE90 Engines (used on 777s) with a 3-D printed T25 sensor housing. This is the first 3-D printed component to be certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly inside GE commercial jet engines.
The new 3-D printing production method does a better job of protecting electronics from damaging airflow and icing. The process also speeds up the pace of prototyping and procurement, which cuts down traditional cycle time. In the case of the sensor housing, GE was able to take almost a year off the process.
GE plans to use 3-D printed fuel nozzles in 737 MAX and A320neo LEAP engines, and in 777X GE9X engines.
The company currently uses more than 300 3-D printing machines and plans to manufacture more than 100,000 additive parts by 2020.
GE Additive Manufacturing Lab Manager Prabhjot Singh’s team even created a GEnx jet engine model using 3-D printing:
There are a number of smaller companies that provide aerospace additive manufacturing technology and services, but large corporations the likes of GE, Airbus, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin are pushing 3-D Printing to the next level.
The technology’s evolution and integration into the aerospace industry will continue to gain momentum in parallel with its other industrial and commercial applications. Barring unexpected major setbacks (airplane crash or fleet grounding due to additive manufacturing faults), 3-D printing may cause a paradigm shift, not just in manufacturing and MRO, but in the aerospace industry as a whole.