We have seen our share of cool 3D printing applications from laboratories using them to advance science to medical professionals applying them to customize care, but even though those stories have become more frequent and mainstream, there are still people who believe that the technology is just a novelty.
It was only a matter of time before 3D printing started being used in industries where precise engineering was of the utmost importance proving that the technology was way past novelty status. Taking care of that, the FAA has just approved the first 3D printed engine part for use in commercial airplanes.
The fist-sized part is a T25 housing for a compressor inlet temperature sensor that was designed and printed by GE Aviation. The part will be used to retrofit over 400 GE90-94B jet engines on Boeing 777 aircraft.
While this part is the first to be approved, GE has plans for many more 3D printed jet engine parts. They are doing test flights on a new engine called the LEAP engine that features 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles. That engine already has several thousand orders and will be used in narrow-body planes like the Boeing 737MAX.
GE is also working on 3D-printed fuel nozzles for the GE 9X -- the largest jet engine ever built -- that will be used in the new Boeing 777x.
So, why is GE pursuing 3D printing for its jet engines? There are many benefits for both GE's bottom line and the environment, including lower cost, lighter weight and better fuel efficiency. There's also the fact that the process produces far less waste than the traditional method of milling or cutting away material from a metal slab to produce a part.
The process lets engineers design and build a single part that can replace a complicated assembly of several parts. Engineers are able to build a part layer by layer with metal powder and then fuse it all together with an electron beam of laser. This allows them to create more complex and precise parts than would ever be possible through traditional methods. And it's faster, too.
“The 3D printer allowed us to rapidly prototype the part, find the best design and move it quickly to production,” says Bill Millhaem, general manager for the GE90 and GE9X engine programs at GE Aviation. “We got the final design last October, started production, got it FAA certified in February, and will enter service next week. We could never do this using the traditional casting process, which is how the housing is typically made.”
The old process would take several years of prototyping. The quicker results let the team find a simpler design using better materials.
It's only a matter of time before we see 3D printed parts moving into more large machines.