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3D Printers Open Up New Options in Aviation

by Mike Hoffman on June 20, 2013

GE3DprinterPARIS — Add aircraft engines to the growing list of complex parts that companies are now depending on 3D printers to produce.

GE Aviation will produce the cobalt-chromium fuel nozzles in CFM International’s Leap engine with a 3D Printer. The company will use a MakerBot printer to “grow” the part rather than assemble it using the previously required 18 components.

3D printing — or what some call additive manufacturing — continues to grow in the defense market. GE Aviation brought a demonstration model of a 3D printer here to the Paris Air Show to give attendees a first hand look at how easy it operates.

The company plans to make at least a $3.5 billion investment into 3-D printing to produce a host of parts at rates officials with the company claim will be 20 times faster. Eliminating multiple components from the parts also lightens the equipment. GE Aviation officials said the fuel nozzle built by the 3D printer will be 25 percent lighter.

The U.S. military has already seen some of the advantages that 3D printing can bring to the battlefield. The U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force has deployed a team of engineers with a 3D printer to Afghanistan. There, the team has been able to build parts after soldiers have provided direct requests.

Unit commanders have lauded the REF team for the ability to quickly build parts to equipment they need with the use of the 3D printer.

Many mistake 3D printing and its limits. Often, some people will assume a 3D printer can only produce pieces out of plastic. This is wrong.

GE Aviation, for example, said the MakerBot printer can produce parts out of titanium, aluminum, steel and inconel. The lasers built into the printers are hot enough to melt the material and use it to build parts, a GE Aviation official said.

Even using the metallic material, the 3D printer still looks and appears to operate much the standard ink printers seen in offices around the world.

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