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 machine is using an electron beam to melt the powder (yellow) and build the part from a 3D digital blueprint.
Avio developed the technology, called electron beam melting or EBM, together with Sweden’s Arcam. The idea was to improve the manufacturing of parts made from an advanced aerospace material called titanium aluminide (TiAl). The material is 50 percent lighter than the nickel-based alloys typically used for low pressure turbine blades.
Blades made from the material can reduce the weight of the entire low pressure turbine by 20 percent. “Although the material is expensive, the weight savings and the fuel consumption savings tied to weight reduction more than pay for it,” Varetti says.
But titanium aluminide is also notoriously hard to work with. Companies normally use lost-wax casting or spin casting to make TiAl parts. However, the material has a very high contraction ratio and can become fragile and prone to cracks as it cools. The EBM printer solves these problems.
Avio 3D-printed LPT blades for the LEAP, GEnx, GE90 and GE9X jet engines.
The printer builds parts directly from a 3D computer drawing by melting layers of fine powder with an electron beam. The technology allows workers to preheat the powder and better control the part’s properties.
Engineers can also change the shape of the blades and print different blades on the same machine in a quick succession, which would be laborious and expensive with casting.
Later this year, GE will start testing blades printed for the GEnx engine at its test facility in Peebles, Ohio. (GE designed the GEnx for Boeing’s Dreamliner and 747-8 aircraft.) The parts will also go inside the GE9X, a new jet engine GE is developing for Boeing’s next-generation long-haul plane, the 777X.
EBM machines are now working inside Avio’s new 20,000-foot plant near Turin, Italy. The factory, which is dedicated to additive manufacturing, opened last August.
GE also started building a new factory for making 3D-printed jet engine fuel nozzles in Alabama. Gregg Morris, who runs additive manufacturing programs at GE Aviation, says he can think of dozens of jet engine parts that could be 3D-printed. “The sky is the limit,” he says.
GE is taking mass production to a lofty new level. The company is pulling 3D printing out of the lab and installing it at the heart of the world’s first factory for printing jet engine fuel nozzles in Auburn, Ala.
The company has spent the last several years developing technologies ranging from data analysis to machine monitoring and preventive maintenance to get 3D printing ready for production prime time. “We need to have systems in place that anticipate a failure before it happens,” says Steve Rengers, principal engineer for additive manufacturing at GE Aviation. “This has not been done before.”
A high power laser prints fuel nozzles from layers of fine metal powder. Top Image: The nozzles supply fuel to the jet engine and keep it lit. Here a GEnx engine is powering through a water ingestion test.
When it opens in 2015, the Auburn plant will be producing fuel nozzles for the next-generation LEAP jet engine, which was developed by CFM International, a joint venture between France’s Snecma (Safran) and GE Aviation.
The engine has benefited from GE’s $1 billion annual investment in jet propulsion R&D. Each engine will have nearly twenty 3D-printed fuel nozzles, as well as fan blades made from fourth-generation carbon-fiber composite blades and a hot section that includes parts from groundbreaking ceramic matrix composites (CMCs).
The nozzles are five times more durable than the previous model. 3D printing allowed engineers to design them as one part rather than 20 individual parts, reducing the number of brazes and welds that would have been necessary using traditional methods.
The 3D-printed nozzles are five times more durable than the previous model.
GE is also developing 3D-printed parts for the GE9X engine, the world’s largest jet engine which will be installed on the next-generation Boeing 777X long-haul passenger jet.
With more than 6,700 orders from 20 countries, adding up to nearly $96 billion (U.S. list price), the LEAP is GE Aviation’s best-selling engine in history. Over the weekend at the Farnborough Airshow, EasyJet and American Airlines placed new multi-billion orders for the engines. Emirates airlines signed a services agreement for the GE9X valued at $13 billion.
The nozzles pipe fuel into the jet engine’s combustion chamber.
The new plant will be using a 3D-printing method called direct metal laser melting (DMLM). The method grows parts directly from a 3D computer drawing by melting together thin layers of fine metal powder with a high-powered laser.
The machines deposit the powder in layers that are as thin as 20 microns– a fifth of the thickness of a human hair. They generate the whole part by adding one layer on top of another- sort of like rebuilding a loaf of bread from individual slices and joining them together.
Monitoring quality throughout the entire build process is crucial, since it can take days or weeks to print a part, depending on its complexity. “We are really pushing the envelope on process monitoring,” Rengers says. “By using sensors to collect data, we can determine the mechanical properties of the part.”
The $50 million plant will operate several additive manufacturing machines simultaneously to meet demand, while employing approximately 300 workers at full capacity.
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GE Aviation will open a new assembly plant in Indiana to build the world’s first passenger jet engine with 3D printed fuel nozzles and next-generation materials, including heat-resistant ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and breakthrough carbon fiber fan blades woven in all three dimensions at once.
Though the engine, called LEAP, will not enter service until 2016 on the Airbus A320neo, it has already become GE Aviation’s bestselling engine, with more than 6,000 confirmed orders from 20 countries, valued at more than $78 billion (U.S. list price).
The LEAP is being developed by CFM International, a 50-50 joint venture between GE and France’s Snecma (Safran).
The partners have designed three versions of the LEAP engine for three next-generation single-aisle passenger planes: the A320neo, Boeing 737 MAX and COMAC C919. Boeing estimates that the single-aisle market will represent 70 percent of all commercial airplane deliveries and 47 percent of total delivery value over the next two decades.
A LEAP 1-A engine is powering through an icing test in Canada.
The new $100 million plant will be based in Lafayette, IN. It will employ 200 people by 2020. They will operate an advanced assembly line equipped with automated vision inspection systems, radio frequency parts management and other new technologies designed to improve production.
The Lafayette plant is the seventh new GE Aviation factory in seven years. Combined, the plants support more than 2,500 new jobs.
The first LEAP-1A on a test stand in Ohio. (Also in top image.)
GE and partners have about 34,000 commercial jet engines in service. The number will grow by a fifth, to 41,000, over the next six years. GE Aviation’s multi-year backlog for equipment and services reached $125 billion at the end of 2013, a 20 percent jump in just one year.
To meet that demand, GE Aviation plans to invest more than $3.5 billion in plant and equipment between now and 2017. Most of the money will be spent in the U.S.
The LEAP engine has benefited from GE’s $1 billion annual investment in jet propulsion R&D. Scientists at GE Global Research have spent the last two decades developing some of the most advanced parts of the new engine, including CMCs, 3D printing methods and controls systems.
Each LEAP engine has inside 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles (pictuted above), fourth-generation carbon-fiber composite blades, and parts made from CMCs.
The 3D-printed nozzles are five times more durable than the previous model. 3D printing allowed engineers to use a simpler design that reduced the number of brazes and welds from 25 to just five.
The CMC parts help with weight and heat management. They are two-thirds lighter than the metal equivalent and can operate at temperatures 20 percent higher than their metallic counterpart, at levels where most alloys grow soft.
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“When you start thinking about design, the weight savings multiplier effect is much more than three to one,” says Michael Kauffman, GE Aviation manufacturing executive. “Your nickel alloy turbine disc does not have to be so beefy to carry all those light blades, and you can slim down the bearings and other parts too because of a smaller centrifugal force. It’s just basic physics.”
The new technologies allowed the design team to cut the engine’s weight by hundreds of pounds compared to the same size engine built by using metal parts, increase the internal temperature and make it more efficient. “We are pushing ahead in materials technology, which gives us the ability to make jet engines lighter, run them hotter, and cool them less,” Kauffman says. “As result, we can make the engines, and the planes they’ll power, more efficient and cheaper to operate.”
The first LEAP engine is already going through an exhaustive development and certification program. It is powering through tests at GE and Snecma facilies in Ohio, France, and, most recently, Canada.
The tests will evaluate various engine systems and operability. The engine will go through 60 different “builds” for both ground and flight testing. (A build is defined as the same engine that has been disassembled for inspection and then rebuilt to continue testing. It may or may not include new hardware.) Ultimately, the tests will put the engine through the equivalent of 15 years of airline service by 2016.
Says Chaker Chahrour, executive vice president at CFM: “We get to put the engine through its paces in the most comprehensive test program we have ever undertaken.”
At California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the world’s most powerful computers are working on some of our most fundamental questions about the universe. The Sierra supercomputer, for example, is delving into the Big Bang and trying to figure out why elementary particles have mass.
But Sierra is also solving problems that are closer to home. This supercomputer and more recently the world’s second most powerful computer called Titan at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee have been helping GE engineers to build a better jet engine.
This image shows a snapshot from a numerical simulation of a generic aircraft engine injector. Top Image: This animation shows a numerical simulation of a jet fuel spray performed on Sierra in collaboration with Cornell. Researchers used between 500,000 to 1 million CPU hours of simulation time. (One CPU hour is equal to one hour used by one computer processor for simulation.)
Jet engines started out as complicated creatures ever since GE built the first one in the U.S. in 1941, and their design has gotten exponentially more intricate since.
Madhu Pai, an engineer in the Computational Combustion Lab at GE Global Research, is working on an elaborate part in the jet engine combustor called the fuel injector. “It delivers the lifeblood of a jet engine combustor,” he says.
Injectors atomize liquid jet fuel and spray it into the combustion chamber where it burns and generates energy for propulsion. “They are one of the most challenging parts to design and very expensive to produce,” Pai says. (The next-generation LEAP jet engine is the world’s first engine with 3D-printed injectors.)
This fuel nozzle for the LEAP jet engine was 3D-printed from a special alloy.
Pai has teamed up with researchers from Arizona State and Cornell universities to use Titan and Sierra to study what exactly happens inside a fuel injector. The time and processing power the engineers have at their disposal is equal to running 10,000 computer processors simultaneously for over 9 months. “The supercomputer gives us a microscopic view of the inside of the injector,” Pai says. “We can study the processes occurring in regions hidden behind the metal or where the fuel spray is too dense. This allows us to better understand the physics behind the design.”
This is physics with practical implications. Pai says that small changes to fuel nozzle geometry could lead to significant changes in engine performance. “These high-fidelity computer simulations help us understand how air and fuel mix and burn, and eventually reduce the number of trials,” Pai says. “Ultimately, we want to build more powerful engines that consume less fuel and have lower emissions.”
Pai’s simulations could also yield new insights beyond jet engines and improve injectors used in locomotives, land-based gas turbines, and potentially find applications in healthcare. “This is just the beginning,” he says.
Take a look at other GE research involving supercomputers here.
A still from a supercomputer simulation of a jet fuel spray.
Hanging a picture in the living room can be a vexing experience involving just a hammer and a nail. Now imagine bolting a jet engine to the wing of a passenger plane. Maintenance crews use special metal brackets to safely mount and dismount the engines that weigh nearly 13,000 pounds. The brackets are reliable but they are also bulky, adding extra pounds for the plane to carry around.
Last year, GE invited members of the open engineering platform GrabCAD to redesign the 4.5-pound titanium alloy part and come up with a lighter bracket that could be 3D printed. The partners offered a $20,000 reward to the best designs.
It worked. The winner, an engineer from Indonesia, created a design for a bracket that weighed 84 percent less than the existing part and survived all mechanical tests. It took him just a few months.
Wired magazine recently explored the idea behind the challenge and GE’s new open innovation strategy: if humans and machines are ever more connected and smarter, let’s act like a startup and access this emerging global brain to solve our toughest problems. (See our next story about the latest challenge announced today.)
These two jet engine brackets made from a titanium alloy were 3D printed at GE Global Research. They were among the 10 finalists in GE’s and grabCAD’s global challenge.
This “new way to make” things animates GE’s partnership with Local Motors, a design innovator that built the world’s first open-source car. GE is not getting in the car business, but it will work with Local Motors to bring co-creation and “microfactory” production to the appliances business.
Their platform, called FirstBuild, will prototype new ideas sell them in small quantities. “This is going to be a brand new community of engineers, fabricators, designers and enthusiasts,” says Jay Rogers, CEO of Local Motors. “GE is already full of experts and they will meet the community half way.”
GE is also working with Quirky, an online community of some 2,000 makers, to design and take to market internet-connected devices ranging from home sensors to smart air conditioners like Aros. Owners can control the 8,000 BTU AC with their smartphones. It is already available on Amazon.
Owners can control their Aros ACs with their smartphones. Top image: The world’s first open-source car developed by Local Motors.
The Wired story also focused on changes in GE’s management style reflecting the new startup ethos – a no mean feat at a global company that employs 300,000 workers. For example, the company teamed up with Lean Startup guru Eric Ries to create a program called FastWorks. It encourages employees to change how they work, with an emphasis on speed to market.
“We’re saying to people it’s ok to try things earlier, it’s ok to bring customers in earlier,” says Beth Comstock, GE’s Chief Marketing Officer. “You’re giving people a lot more freedom to move faster to make more small mistakes.”
Moving faster, indeed. Only one of top ten brackets from last year’s GrabCAD challenge failed when subjected to mechanical tests. The aviation engineering experience of the Indonesian winner? Zero.
That’s the power of the crowd.
These two jet engine brackets made from a titanium alloy came out of a 3D printer at GE Global Research last December . They were among the 10 finalists in GE’s global 3D printing challenge.
GE and the open engineering platform GrabCAD invited the maker community to design a stronger but lighter bracket used for moving jet engines that weigh nearly 13,000 pounds. The company received over 700 entries from all over the world.
GE engineers strapped each of the 10 shortlisted brackets to an MTS servo-hydraulic testing machine and exposed it to axial loads as high as 9,500 pounds.
Only one of the brackets failed. The rest advanced to a torsional test, where they were exposed to torque of 5,000 inch-pounds.
A bracket designed by M Arie Kurniawan, an engineer from Indonesia, had the best combination of stiffness and light weight. The original bracket weighed 2,033 grams (4.48 pounds), but Kurniawan was able to reduce its weight by nearly 84 percent to just 327 grams (0.72 pounds).
Kurniawan won $7,000 in prize money. GE and GrabCAD also selected seven other design winners who will divide the balance of the $20,000 prize pool.
GE already started testing jet engines with 3D printed parts in Ohio and Winnipeg, Canada.
A jet engine bracket designed by M Arie Kurniawan, an engineer from Salatiga in Central Java, Indonesia, came in first place in a global 3D printing challenge held by GE and the open engineering community GrabCAD. Kurniawan will receive $7,000 in prize money. GE and GrabCAD also selected seven other design winners who will divide the balance of the $20,000 prize pool.
GE and GrabCAD launched the 3D Printing Design Quest in June. They challenged the public to redesign a metal jet engine bracket, making it 30 percent lighter while preserving its integrity and mechanical properties like stiffness.
The bracket attaches to the outside of the engine. Manufacturing and maintenance crews use it to manipulate jet engines like the GEnx, which weighs 12,800 pounds.
The original bracket (below) weighed 2,033 grams (4.48 pounds), but M Arie Kurniawan was able to slash its weight by nearly 84 percent to just 327 grams (0.72 pounds). His design, inspired by the H-beam profile, is featured above.
Participants from 56 countries submitted nearly 700 bracket designs to the Quest. In September, the partners picked 10 finalists who received $1,000 each.
Aviation 3D printed the 10 shortlisted designs at its additive manufacturing plant in Cincinnati, Ohio. GE workers made the brackets from a titanium alloy on a direct metal laser melting (DMLM) machine, which uses a laser beam to fuse layers of metal powder into the final shape.
The team then sent the finished brackets to GE Global Research (GRC) in Niskayuna, New York, for destruction testing. GRC engineers strapped each bracket to an MTS servo-hydraulic testing machine and exposed it to axial loads ranging from 8,000 to 9,500 pounds.
Only one of the brackets failed and the rest advanced to a torsional test, where they were exposed to torque of 5,000 inch-pounds.
Kurniawan’s bracket had the best combination of stiffness and light weight. The original bracket weighed 2,033 grams (4.48 pounds), but Kurniawan was able to slash its weight by nearly 84 percent to just 327 grams (0.72 pounds).
GE and GrabCAD asked designers to improve upon this bracket. It weighs 2,033 grams
He says that he was inspired by the H-beam profile because it can handle both a vertical and horizontal load. “3D printing will be available for everyone in the very near future,” says Kurniawan, who runs a small engineering and design firm called DTECH-ENGINEERING with his brother. “That’s why I want to be familiar with additive manufacturing as soon as possible.”
GE Aviation is already testing 3D printed fuel nozzles inside an actual jet engine on a test stand in Peebles, Ohio. “We believe additive manufacturing methods like 3D printing will be pervasive,” says Michael Idelchik, who runs advanced technologies research at GE. “We already know that it can be done. But now we have to get the people with the right talents to embrace it and create an ecosystem of designers, suppliers and materials scientists.”
Says Idelchik: “You need almost an artistic approach to design, the ability to model and analyze structures, and also the knowledge to pick the right materials and the correct manufacturing equipment. There is a lot that goes into the mix, and collaboration is the perfect tool for finding the best solution.”
The maker movement is a big community of students, manufacturing enthusiasts and hobbyists using cutting edge tools and design software to find better ways to make things. In the U.S., they meet in TechShop workshops and flock to Maker Faire fairs to innovate and exchange ideas. But the results of GE’s latest manufacturing challenge show that the movement resonates far beyond America’s borders. It is an international affair.
GE and GrabCAD, working closely with digital strategy firm Undercurrent, just announced 10 finalists of the 3D Printing Design Quest challenge to redesign a jet engine bracket, make it lighter, and print it on a 3D printer. There were more than 700 entries and the finalists come from nine countries as different and far apart as Hungary, which has two, and Indonesia. They will each receive $1,000.The bracket is a key jet engine component. It supports the weight of the engine during handling and must withstand strong vibrations during flight.GE engineers will now manufacture the 10 designs and put them through mechanical tests at GE Global Research in upstate New York. The load testing will take place between Sept. 17 and Nov. 15 and the top eight designs will share a total prize pool of $20,000. “We have entered into a new era of manufacturing that is leveraging the proven power of open innovation,” said Mark Little, chief technology officer at GE Global Research. “Additive manufacturing is allowing GE, together with the maker community, to push the boundaries of traditional engineering. These finalists have demonstrated what can be achieved by embracing this more open, collaborative model.”The point has not been lost on New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who wrote about the Quest challenge in his latest column. “When G.E. is looking to invent a new product, it first assembles its own best engineers from India, China, Israel and the U.S,” he writes. “But now it is also supplementing them by running ‘contests’ to stimulate the best minds anywhere to participate in G.E.’s innovations… I saw one prototype that was 80 percent lighter than the older version…A majority of entries came from people outside the aviation industry.”Explore our slideshow featuring designs from the 10 finalists. The judges also recognized several designs for their creativity. They are listed here.
M. Arie Kurniawan lives in Salatiga, Indonesia. He runs a small engineering firm with his brother. “3D printing will be available for everyone in the very near future,” he says. “It will change many things.”France’s Alexis Costa says he is a LEGO Technic fan.Thomas Johansson from Sweden built a powertrain for the luxury sports car maker Koenigsegg. “A colleague sent me a notification of this competition and I could not resist a good challenge where the part was going to be tested in reality,” he says.Sebastien Vavassori lives in Stevenage, U.K. He works as a stress engineer for EADS. “3D printing is an interesting process, with a direct value for enterprises specialized in maintenance,” he says. “With 3D printing, the last version of a mechanical part can be downloaded without delay; moreover that costs almost nothing in transport and in stock.”Nic Adams hails from Cape Town, South Africa, and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. He says that he wanted to keep his bracket “organic, minimizing sharp corners and using a hollow structure to best distribute material and stress.”Fidel Chirtes from Romania specializes in automotive and machine design.Andrea Anneda lives in Milan, Italy. “My inspiration came from nature,” he says. “I tried to recreate a structure similar to a bone.”Peter Mandli hails from from Hungary. He is interested in automotive design.Ármin Fendrik works in the small town of Bonyhád in southern Hungary. He tried “a lot of different designs, and after a few I noticed some patterns so I was able to optimize my designs,” he says. He is interested in 3D printing applications in healthcare and space. “With 3D printing we could design and manufacture personalized body parts…at a moderate cost and with solutions which are only achievable through additive manufacturing.”Piotr Mikulski lives in Rumia, Poland. He says that “since childhood, I have always been curious about how things work. The problem is that there are so many questions and so little time to find answers.”
Above, GE’s latest jet engine, LEAP, uses parts made from revolutionary materials called ceramic matrix composites, or CMCs. The ceramic can handle the punishing forces inside a jet engine at temperatures as high as 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Since CMCs are also a third lighter than conventional alloys now used to make jet engine parts, they can shave hundreds of pounds from a jet engine and reduce fuel burn. GE developed the LEAP in a joint venture with France’s Snecma called CFM International.
Thomas Edison was not the first engineer to build a working light bulb and the Wright brothers were not the first aviators to fly an aircraft. But like Edison, they took an abstract idea and made it practical.
Edison came up with a carbon filament that made bulbs shine reliably for days. Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first self-powered flight and invented the airplane. Their achievement was so momentous that in 1939 FDR chose to celebrate August 19, Orville Wright’s birthday, as National Aviation Day.
The innovative legacy of the Wrights and Edison now resonates inside a single company. GE, established by Edison, built the first American jet engine. Today, GE makes the most powerful jet engines from futuristic materials, designs technologies that make flying cheaper and more efficient, and helps planes land at some of the most forbidding airports. Take a look at our slideshow.
GE’s latest jet engine, LEAP, uses parts made from revolutionary materials called ceramic matrix composites, or CMCs. The ceramic can handle the punishing forces inside a jet engine at temperatures as high as 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Since CMCs are also a third lighter than conventional alloys now used to make jet engine parts, they can shave hundreds of pounds from a jet engine and reduce fuel burn. GE developed the LEAP in a joint venture with France’s Snecma called CFM International.They called them the Hush-Hush Boys. In 1942, a top-secret group of GE engineers build the first American jet engine.Unlike any other jet engine in history, the LEAP engine also uses metal fuel nozzles “printed” by lasers by adding one layer on top of another. CFM has already received orders for more than 4,500 LEAP engines. The company plans to start ground testing the first full LEAP engine for Airbus A320neo aircraft this September.The GE90-115B jet engine is the most powerful jet engine ever built. At a 2002 test stand, it generated 127,900 pounds of thrust, earning it an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records (that’s more than the combined total horsepower of the Titanic and the Redstone rocket that took Alan Shepard to space). One of the engine’s blades made from advanced carbon fiber composites is now part of Architecture and Design Collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.The GE90’s successor, the GEnx, was developed for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner aircraft. A GEnx-powered Dreamliner now holds world speed and distance records on a round-the-world flight for its weight class. This GEnx engine is powering through a water ingestion test at GE Aviation’s testing site in Peebles, Ohio.When New Zealand’s Queenstown airport switched on a new data-based GE navigation system last year, the technology cut monthly cumulative delays from 2,400 minutes to just 200 minutes. Less holding pattern meant fewer gallons of fuel burned and lower emissions. The system, called Required Navigation Performance or RNP, relies on GPS signals rather than ground based beacons. It is an example of how airlines and airports can tap the power of data to improve operations. James Fallows, an aviation reporter and China expert, wrote that before RNP, much of western China was “effectively beyond the range of reliable air travel.” GE has recently launched GE Flight Quest and challenged data enthusiasts and coders to use big data sets like flight routes, weather, plane and airport system data, and design a solution that would maximize flight economics by telling the pilot the optimal route to fly a plane.Running a leaner, more efficient airline does not have to involve spending capital on the latest, most efficient planes. A little bit of jet engine brain surgery can do the job. GE engineers have developed a brainy software system called Fuel and Carbon Solutions that crunches aircraft data, from jet engine performance, fuel burn and plane location to information coming from digital flight data recorders. GE estimates that the system can cut an airline’s fuel bill by up to 3 percent. That may not seem like much, but consider fuel costs can reach between 30 to 44 percent of an airline’s operating expenses. China Airlines and other oerators have signed up to use the system.
Everyone knows that Thomas Edison created the modern light bulb, but a lesser known Edison discovery tied to the bulb’s birth is now enjoying the limelight.
In 1879, the inventor and GE founder exposed thin slices of bamboo to scorching heat at his lab in Menlo Park, N.J. The cellulose inside the bamboo quickly carbonized and transformed the splinters into the first carbon fibers. The fibers could conduct electricity and handle intense heat, and Edison used them as filaments in his early light bulbs. In 1906, however, GE engineers invented the modern tungsten filament and carbon fiber was quickly forgotten.
It remained dormant for the next 80 years, until NASA engineers re-discovered the material in the 1960s. They were seeking an edge in the space race with the Soviet Union and carbon fiber’s combination of toughness and light weight made it an ideal space age material. Designers were soon crafting composite parts made from “prepregs,” layers of carbon fiber mats impregnated with resin. These parts were tougher, stronger and lighter than steel and aluminum alloys. They quickly started replacing metals in the fuselage and other structural parts of planes and missiles.
The early carbon fiber cost as much as $400 per pound. But production innovation brought down price and composites quickly spread. Today, BMW and Tesla Motors cars have carbon fiber bodies, there are carbon fiber golf clubs and tennis rackets, and Boeing and Airbus build large portions of their next-generation planes, the Dreamliner and the A350, from the material.
But no company went further than GE. GE spent several decades developing a version of carbon fiber composites that could replace the metal fan blades at the front of the jet engine and make it lighter and more efficient. “This was a huge, expensive and risky project,” says Shridhar Nath, who leads the composites lab at GE Global Research. “We planned to replace titanium with what is essentially plastic. We were starting from scratch and we did not know how carbon fiber blades will respond to rain, hail, snow and sand, and the large forces inside the engine.”
The bet paid off. It allowed GE engineers to shed hundreds of pounds from the fan and build the GE90, the world’s largest and most powerful jet engine. The fan blades and fan case in the GEnx, GE’s latest and most fuel efficient large jet engine, are made from the material.
But GE engineers are already looking for new applications. They are experimenting with carbon fiber wind turbine blades, riser pipes for the oil and gas industry, and patient tables for X-Ray and CT machines that are transparent to radiation and improve image quality. “Over the next 15 years you are going to see carbon fiber explode across areas where we have not seen them before,” says Nath. “Everybody is interested in reducing weight and increasing strength. That’s what’s carbon fiber composites got.”
New York’s Museum of Modern Art included a GE90 blade made from carbon fiber composites in its Architecture and Design Collection. Carbon filaments did the trick but they darkened the inside of the light bulb. Edison replaced it with Tungsten wire. The GEnx jet engine has fan blades and fan case made from carbon fiber composites. Boeing’s Dreamliner has sections of its fuselage made from carbon fiber composites. The BMW i3 all-electric concept car is the first all-composite car. Carbon fiber composite parts from GE’s plant in Hamble, UK, serve on the wing trailing edge of the A350, the latest passenger get built by Airbus.
The Maker Movement is a vast and diverse community teeming with passionate hobbyists and DIY entrepreneurs energized to build new products and open their designs to others to improve upon them. They share an infectious innovative ethos that anybody can learn from.
Last month, GE challenged the Maker community to use 3D printing to manufacture complex parts for medical equipment, and to redesign a bracket used for manipulating jet engines and make it 30 percent lighter. “We want to develop an ecosystem of designers, engineers, materials scientists, and other partners who can learn with us,” says Michael Idelchik, who runs GE’s advanced technologies research. “We have a number of products that we are going to be launching and we want to challenge people to get into business with us. If the ecosystem grows, the entire industry will grow.”
GE calls these challenges “quests.” They are both open and submissions are rolling in. The company has already received hundreds of entries in the bracket challenge alone. GE and partnerGrabCAD will manufacture and test the top 10 bracket designs. The winners will receive $1,000 each. The eight designs that perform the best in tests will divide an additional $20,000 prize pool.
The top 10 entrants in the medical manufacturing quest will receive $5,000 each. GE and Nine Sigma will invite the winners to produce the parts from materials of GE’s choosing. Up to three winners will then receive up to $50,000 each.
Our slideshow features a selection of bracket submissions. Many entrants have submitted designs with light-weight mesh structure, sinuous forms, and hollowed-out shapes difficult to make with traditional machining tools but well suited for 3D printing.
Todd Rockstroh has spent the last decade on manufacturing’s vanguard, using lasers to “print” nozzles and other complex jet engine parts from bits of superalloy dust. Despite enormous progress, this process, which is called 3-D printing, remains a tricky terrain. Rockstroh, who is a laser processing expert at GE Aviation in Cincinnati, Ohio, has been working to eliminate as many unknowns as possible, starting with the material. “When we designed the nozzle, we wanted to make it from an alloy that was mature, well known and thoroughly tested, nothing exotic,” he says.
He found it inside the human body. Rockstroh and his team looked at various materials suitable for 3-D printing and settled on cobalt-chromium alloys that have been used for decades for joint replacements and dental implants. These alloys are light, tough and corrosion resistant. Conveniently, they can also operate in temperatures as high as 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, and are relatively cheap. “Because of their medical applications, there has been a tremendous amount of research done on these alloys,” Rockstroh says. “They are also pretty common because they serve such a large market, which makes them cheaper.”
Artificial knees are solid, however, and Rockstroh and his team needed powdered metal. The team fanned out to search for specialty smelters. They found several who could turn molten alloys into powder through gas atomization, mechanical milling, spray forming and other advanced methods.
Engineers at GE aviation use alloys developed for artificial joints to 3-D print jet engine parts. But doctors have also started looking at the technology to print replacement body parts.
The powder arrives at the GE Aviation plant in 15 to 30 pound containers. “It’s smaller than a pitcher of water,” Rockstroh says. The team sifts the powder to make sure they have right particle size and empty three to six containers in a tub sitting on top of the 3-D printer, called direct metal laser melting machine, DMLM.A computer that holds a file with a digital drawing of the nozzle guides the DMLM machine’s high-powered fiber optic laser across the powder bed like a painter moves a brush across the canvas. The laser then fuses successive layers of powder each 20 microns thick to the desired shape.The process can take as long as 120 hours and the workers use big data analytics to monitor everything from the size of the weld pool, temperature and the stability of the laser. The new nozzle is 25 percent lighter and as much as five times more durable than the current nozzle made from 20 different parts.Jet engine parts have never been so hip.
People have been using ceramics to store food, drink tea, and tile their homes for millennia. But GE engineers recently upped the ante and started putting high-grade ceramics inside jet engines.
Their version is a light super material that combines silicon with ceramic-coated silicon carbide fibers. It is tough enough to take the heat and forces inside a roaring jet engine and outperform even the most advanced alloys, and light enough to shave hundreds of pounds off a jet engine. “We are pushing ahead in materials technology, which gives us the ability to make jet engines lighter, run them hotter, and cool them less,” says GE Aviation manufacturing executive Michael Kauffman. “As result, we can make the engines, and the planes they’ll power, more efficient and cheaper to operate.”GE is said today that it would invest $125 million and build a new 125,000 square-foot advanced manufacturing plant in Asheville, N.C., to make parts from the new material, called ceramic matrix composites, or CMCs.The first products will be stationary high pressure turbine parts for the next-generation LEAP jet engine manufactured by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran. But CMCs, which weigh a third of metal alloys, could also find applications as light-weight turbine blades, rotors, and other parts. “When you start thinking about design, the weight savings multiplier effect is much more than three to one,” Kauffman says. “Your nickel-based superalloy turbine disc does not have to be so beefy to carry all those light blades, and you can slim down the bearings and other parts too because of a smaller centrifugal force. It’s just basic physics.”Engineers at GE Global Research and GE Aviation’s pilot-scale production facility in Delaware developed the material over the last 20 years. They also designed the machines that manufacture CMCs. Pending final approval from the state of North Carolina, the Asheville facility would be the first of its kind in jet propulsion.GE plans to use the Delaware facility to apply the highly engineered ceramic coatings onto silicon carbide fibers and then incorporate the fibers into flexible sheets together with polymers and other composite matrix materials. Workers in North Carolina will then cut the sheets into shapes, put them inside molds and compact them in giant pressure cookers called autoclaves, which make the parts take their form.The parts then travel inside a hot oven that “burns out” the polymers and leaves a porous lattice made from the ceramic-coated silicon carbide fibers in the shape of the desired part.
A hot oven “burns out” polymers and leaves a porous lattice made from ceramic-coated silicon carbide fibers in the shape of the desired part.
Parts from ceramic composites will serve inside next-generation jet engines like the LEAP.
The workers then melt silicon on top of the lattice and let the silicon wick its way into the shell’s nooks and crannies. “The ceramic coating the fiber is the secret sauce,” Kauffman says. “It allows us to use a relatively simple process to get really good infiltration.”Finally, the workers will use hard diamond grinders to get the desired part dimensions. “We often use ceramics as metal cutters, so we had to go to one step beyond, to diamond,” Kauffman says. “This is a new process. We generally don’t cut anything as hard as CMCs.”The company completed design freeze on the first two versions of the LEAP engine in June 2012. The first full LEAP engine, a LEAP-1A for the Airbus A320neo, is on schedule to begin ground testing in September of this year.Boeing estimates that the world aircraft fleet will double in size over the next 20 years to some 40,000 planes. Much of the growth will come from single-aisle next-gen planes like the A320neo, Boeing’s the 737 MAX, and COMAC’s C919, the LEAP’s target market. CMCs will also serve inside the new GE9X engine selected by Boeing for its future 777X aircraft program.Southwest, Lion Air, AirAsia, Virgin America, Quantas and dozens of other airlines have already placed orders for more than 4,500 LEAP engines.GE estimates that the new plant, along with plant and equipment upgrades across GE’s facilities in North Carolina, could create 240 new jobs by 2017.
Many people still struggle with the idea of “printing” things by adding one layer of material on top of another, but Michael Idelchik, who runs GE’s advanced technologies research, is already talking about “printing large portions of jet engines.”
GE Aviation, for example, is using lasers to print fuel nozzles for next-generation jet engines. The nozzles are 25 percent lighter and as much as five times more durable than the existing model welded from 20 different parts. “We already know that it can be done, we’ve been playing with it for a while,” Idelchik says. “Now we want to develop an ecosystem of designers, engineers, materials scientists, and other partners who can learn with us. We have a number of products that we are going to be launching and we want to challenge people to get into business with us. If the ecosystem grows, the entire industry will grow.”
GE asked participants to “completely re-imagine” the bracket, which supports critical jet engine components during handling, and make it 30 percent lighter.
Idelchik is serious. GE just announced a pair of global “additive manufacturing quests” challenging innovators and entrepreneurs to design a light-weight bracket and hangers for a jet engine, and to produce complex parts for healthcare.
The first contest, called 3D Printing Design Quest, asks participants to “completely reimagine” the bracket and hangers, which support critical jet engine components during handling, and make them 30 percent lighter. “You need to understand software and creative design, the unique properties of the printing machines, and meet the functional requirements of the parts like strength and the ability to handle vibrations,” Idelchik says. “If we can make a relatively simple part like the bracket so much lighter, imagine what you could do with complex parts. We would like to see some of the people who enter the challenge to become our suppliers as we launch new products.”
GE and its partner, GrabCAD, will manufacture and test the top 10 designs and the winners will receive $1,000 each. The eight designs that perform the best in tests will divide an additional $20,000 prize pool.
The second quest, called 3-D Printing Production Quest: High Precision and Advanced Manufacturing, asks participants to use 3-D printing to manufacture “highly precise and complex parts” for healthcare. The top 10 entrants will receive $5,000 each and an invite to produce the parts from materials of GE’s choosing. GE and its partner, Nine Sigma, will then select up to three winners who will receive up to $50,000 each. “You have the material, you need a design and a machine that integrates the material, and then you need to control the machine to produce the part,” Idelchik says.
Idelchik says that the time is right for 3-D printing. “How this ecosystem will develop will define how far additive manufacturing will go,” he says. “I believe that we will get some outstanding participants with breakthrough ideas who will like to start a business.”
Detailed information about the challenges and how to enter is available here.
This is not the first GE challenge. Previous GE quests focused on reducing flight delays and improving the patient experience in hospital.
Even in the lofty world of aerospace components, GE’s new 3-D printed jet engine fuel nozzle is a rare bird. Workers build it as a single piece by welding together bits of super alloys dust with lasers. The new nozzle is 25 percent lighter and as much as five times more durable than the current nozzle made from 20 different parts.
But here’s the rub. 3-D printing is so new that engineers have to develop new quality control methods before jumping into mass production. “We are dealing with a microscopic weld pool that’s moving at hundreds of millimeters per second,” says Todd Rockstroh, a mechanical engineer at GE Aviation. “Every cubic millimeter is a chance for a defect.”
Big data and sophisticated algorithms can help. GE Aviation is developing inspection technology that can collect and analyze manufacturing data and spot potential trouble like temperature anomalies while the part is still being made. “When the weld pool is too small, things could be colder than they should be, when it’s too big, it could be too hot,” Rockstroh says.
Big data tech will collect and analyze 3-D printing data to spot potential trouble during manufacturing.
How hot? The laser heats the alloy, a special blend of cobalt, chrome, and molybdenum, to more than 2,250 degrees Fahrenheit.
Welders have monitored weld pools for centuries with shaded glasses, listening to the “bacon sizzle” of the molten metal, and later using infrared sensors, cameras, and pyrometers. GE is collecting all this data, as well as information from sensors checking the mechanical stability of the 3-D printing machines and the laser beams, and feeding it into algorithms that reduce terabytes of raw data to megabytes of useful information. “We are talking about monitoring large parts that take anywhere between 10 to 100 hours to produce,” Rockstroh says. “That’s when it gets real tricky. It is critical to know how each cubic millimeter is being built and not trust that you are good enough at process control.”
The technology stores the data and allows engineers to pull it up later during X-ray and other conventional testing to determine what went wrong or worked well.
GE estimates that this “in-process” inspection technology could increase production speeds by 25 percent and reduce the time set aside for “post-build” inspection by the same about.
The savings will add up. GE will install 19 fuel nozzles into each next-gen LEAP jet enginemanufactured by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Snecma. CFM has orders for 4,500 LEAPs and GE plans to produce 100,000 3-D printed components for the LEAP as well as the GE9X engine, in development for Boeing’s new 777X plane.