Science & Technology

3D Printing, Now With More Jet Engine Parts


3D printing

Home hobbyists will likely be confined to 3D-printing objects out of plastic for a few years to come, but the technology moves forward in leaps and bounds. Avio, an Italian engineering firm which is part of GE Aviation, has developed a new printing process that makes objects strong enough to be used as jet engine turbine blades. The new process is a step beyond the laser sintering that produced a headline-grabbing Model 1911 semiautomatic pistol last year.

From GE:

Engineers at the Italian aerospace company Avio have developed a breakthrough process for 3D printing light-weight metal blades for jet engine turbines.

The method builds the blades from a titanium powder fused with a beam of electrons accelerated by a 3-kilowatt electron gun.

The gun is 10 times more powerful than laser beams currently used for printing metal parts. This boost in power allows Avio, which is part of GE Aviation, to build blades from layers of powder that are more than four times thicker than those used by laser-powered 3D printers. 

As a result, one machine can produce eight stage 7 blades for the low pressure turbine that goes inside the GEnx jet engine in just 72 hours. "This is very competitive with casting, which is how we used to make them," says Mauro Varetti, advanced manufacturing engineer at Avio.

The Electron Beam Melting process which was developed along with Arcam, a Swedish firm, has the added advantage of allowing aerospace manufacturers to use titanium aluminide, wich allows for strong engine parts 20 percent lighter than those made with traditional alloys. Other techniques for working with the stuff apparently result all too often in fragile scrap.

Jet engine fuel nozzles are next on the list of items to be 3D printed (those will be made in Alabama), with other parts to come.

Again, this isn't hobbyist technology, and won't be for years to come (if ever). But as evidence of how far 3D printing technology is pushing the business of manufacturing and creating improved processes and products, this is pretty impressive.