GE Aviation, the world's largest manufacturer of jet engines, announced this month that they are investing $50 million to create a 3D printing production facility in Auburn, Alabama. The facility will be used to print over 100,000 fuel nozzles for the $75 billion worth of orders that have been placed for the company's next-generation jet engines that are scheduled to start flying in commercial airliners in 2016. The growing use of 3D printing for the manufacture of production parts is detailed in the IDTechEx Research report 3D Printing 2014-2025: Technologies, Markets, Players.
3D printing offers many benefits for the aerospace sector. Additive manufacturing reduces material waste and aerospace has typically had over 94% wastage of expensive materials like titanium. Design freedom allows for improved mathematically-driven designs that are lighter weight and have functional advantages such as better wear and complicated multi-component parts that previously required assembly can be 3D printed as a single object. According to GE Aviation, their new 3D printed fuel nozzles are 25% lighter, last five times longer than their predecessors and no longer require any assembly.
Combined with other technological advantages GE aims to improve engine fuel efficiency by 15%. This will equate to worldwide savings of $40 billion per year in fuel costs by 2020. Other companies in the aerospace sector are following suit. However, the adoption of 3D printing for the manufacture of production parts in a stringently-regulated sector like aerospace is not without issue. According the NASA, the point-wise nature of 3D printing is a continuous source of potential defects. GE had to pioneer the development of new forms of non-destructive testing and inspection to ensure the safety and reliability of their 3D printed parts.
The growing use of 3D printing for the manufacture of production parts, usually in metals, dovetails with related developments in 3D printing materials. Cambridge University spin-out Metalysis has developed an innovative process that can transform natural rutile sands directly into titanium metal powder in a single step. Rutile is a naturally occurring titanium ore present in beach sands and, therefore, is plentiful and cheap. Metalysis titanium powder was successfully used as feedstock for a Renishaw 3D printer at the University of Sheffield at the end of last year, paving the way to much cheaper 3D printed titanium. Aerospace is not the only sector keen to 3D print in titanium. The automotive and space industries are also pushing the boundaries of what is possible with 3D printing, not only in terms of printing processes but also materials. 3D printing materials are detailed in the IDTechEx Research report 3D Printing Materials 2014-2025: Status, Opportunities, Market Forecasts.
With the aerospace sector pushing for ever larger build volumes, US-based welding experts Sciaky announced earlier this month the forthcoming commercial availability of their 3D printer. With a build volume 19' long, Sciaky's printer is one of the largest in the world. The printer was developed in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and uses wire feedstock rather than powder.
At the other end of the spectrum, some companies are pushing to reduce the cost of 3D metal printers. US-based Vader Systems are trying to bring the first 3D metal printer using a magnetohydrodynamic printing process to market. If successful, this printing process could reduce the cost of the cheapest 3D metal printers by a factor of 10 or more, making the technology accessible to many more people.
As discussed in the IDTechEx Research report Applications of 3D Printing 2014-2024: Forecasts, Markets, Players, the hype around consumer 3D printers is just the tip of the iceberg and many more major applications of 3D printing have yet to see the same exposure. The 3D printing of critical aerospace components will be the next application to reach maximum visibility with many more to follow.
To learn more see IDTechEx's 3D printing reports and attend the IDTechEx event 3D Printing LIVE! USA 2014 taking place on 19-20 November in Santa Clara, CA.
Top image: In 2013 GE hosted a crowdsourcing challenge to design a 3D printed jet engine bracket that is more efficient and cost effective than their current version. Image shows 1st place winner - M Kurniawan GE Jet Engine Bracket Version 1.2 by m.arie.kurniawan-1.