3D Printing Comes of Age in Aerospace
The number of aerospace applications and research projects using additive manufacturing, sometimes called 3D printing, continues to grow. With parts now flying on engines and aerostructures, expanded use will also require managing and moving enormous data sets from suppliers to OEMs.
In a look to the future, NASA announced in a press release that it had tested a rocket engine injector made through additive manufacturing. NASA's Glenn Research Center in Cleveland conducted the successful tests for Aerojet Rocketdyne through a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement. The release noted that the type of injector, if manufactured with traditional processes, would take more than a year to make. With additive manufacturing, the part can be produced in less than four months, with a 70 % reduction in cost.
While testing novel uses in rockets is important, commercial aircraft engine manufacturers are turning to additive manufacturing for production parts. The Hartford Courant reports that “[Pratt & Whitney], the engine division of Hartford-based United Technologies Corp., put more than two dozen 3D-printed components on its latest quiet and fuel-efficient PurePower geared turbofan engine.” The article quotes Thomas Prete, the company's head of engineering, as saying "We've contemplated lots of parts and continue to add to the list." The article also states that GE Aviation is using 3D printing to make complex fuel nozzles for an engine. “The main advantage,” the article quoted Prete as saying, “is that engine designers can do things that would have been impossible.”
GE Aviation is so serious about additive manufacturing, noted in Popular Science, that the company purchased Morris Technology and its sister company Rapid Quality Manufacturing, well-known companies in 3D printing. While plastics and a limited number of metals were once were the only materials available, “That’s changing. Companies have an increasing number of printing techniques to choose from, such as electron-beam melting, which, like SLS, makes production-grade aerospace parts. They can also print with many materials, including titanium, ceramic, and resin…. For now, those parts aren’t critical aircraft components. For example, the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner includes 30 or so printed components—a record—but most of them are air ducts or hinges.”