Remember GE’s 3D-printed jet fuel injector from the beginning of this article?
They are not just celebrating how much the profit of this part has increased.
In fact, the success of the nozzle marks a breakthrough in aviation technology.
As with car engines, the combustion completeness of a jet engine greatly affects the efficiency of the engine.
Currently, one way to improve combustion completeness is to distribute fuel more evenly in the combustion chamber.
Fuel distribution is the job of the aforementioned fuel nozzles.
Not only is the 3D-printed LEAP nozzle 25 per cent lighter and five times more durable, it also has highly complex flow passages that allow fuel to be injected into the combustion chamber with great efficiency.
The effect of 3D-printing nozzles and other design improvements have made the LEAP engine 15% more fuel efficient than its predecessor.
The exciting thing is that ongoing additive manufacturing experimentation and implementation applications will yield many beneficial results.
Increases in fuel costs, carbon emissions and the overall price of travel can all be partly contained by additive manufacturing technology.
And there are even more benefits.
Some suppliers will have a hard time
All aircraft parts must first be conceptualized and prototype-designed, and additive manufacturing can lead to significant changes in these processes.
Traditional metal manufacturing methods include metal forming, casting, machining and welding, all of which require a great deal of time, specialized equipment and technical capability.
In addition, it takes time to figure out an optimal production method.
As an example, GE’s LEAP engine fuel nozzles were not successfully poured eight times during the development stage due to the complexity of the geometry.
In many cases, when trying to build new designs, manufacturers often have to wait for existing suppliers to address production capacity constraints.
At other times, they will have to find entirely new suppliers with the capacity to produce innovative parts.
As a result, manufacturers often have to wait a long time between the conceptualization of new parts and the delivery of working prototypes.
Additive manufacturing has the potential to significantly reverse this original design and prototyping process.
Essentially, additive manufacturing relies on increasing the number of layers of material to produce the final product, rather than taking the material away.
This means time-consuming engineering challenges, such as how to accurately slice the metal plates and then reassemble them to form a new wing flap design, can be completely avoided.
In addition, additive manufacturing operations do not require very advanced technology.
This allows prototype parts for manufacturing tests to be either done entirely in-house or outsourced to a small number of AM suppliers.
This has two big effects:
First, some aircraft parts makers may suffer in the long run.
Additive manufacturing technology allows traditional manufacturing capabilities, often spread across multiple suppliers, to be integrated into a small team with a 3D printer.
For example, in 2017, GE did an experiment that printed the engine of an old helicopter.
They found that with just six engineers and a 3D printer, the prototype could replace the 10-15 or more suppliers needed for traditional manufacturing.
Second, while mass production using additive manufacturing techniques tends to be more expensive, not having to hire multiple suppliers significantly reduces the delivery time for testing new designs.
In one landmark example, Boeing printed a wing trim and drilling tool that was 17.5 feet long, 5.5 feet wide and 1.5 feet high in just 30 hours.
This was much less time consuming than the “normal” production process – it would have taken much longer to prototype – a full three months.
Significant savings in design and testing time is an obvious benefit of additive manufacturing technology, albeit at a relative disadvantage to component suppliers.
Everything has its limitations
One might think that shortening the design delivery time would also shorten the product time to market.
It is also possible to assert that the impact of 3D printing on aviation could lead to more competition.
The overall life cycle of the product will be shortened.
But that’s not possible. Luck and misfortune really depend on how everyone looks at things.
Commercial aircraft require a huge capital investment.
As a result, operators will always want to generate sufficient returns to justify the initial cost before switching assets.
In addition, in order to build each new type of aircraft, each country and region has invested huge resources such as factory space, labor force and specialized equipment.
Often, these resources are not easily converted to alternatives, and shutting down every expensive production line early is out of the question.
However, discontinuity of production technology often has the effect of encouraging further innovation of production technology.
In the glass manufacturing industry, Lubbers, Colburn and float glass appeared.
Therefore, the results generated by 3D printing technology may be innovations driven by the improvement of experimental interest and ability.