Jan 31, 2016 | By Benedict

With Boeing’s 737 MAX making its maiden flight on Friday, the reputation of 3D printing within the aerospace industry also seems to be soaring. The test flight took place over 2 hours and 47 minutes, free of difficulties. But in spite of the routine nature of the maiden flight, the aircraft continues to make headlines—largely thanks to some intriguing internal components. The 737 MAX, successor to the 737 Next Generation, is powered by a pair of CFM International LEAP-1B engines, packed with futuristic parts such as nickel-alloy compressor blades grown from a single crystal, lightweight materials called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and 19 3D printed fuel nozzles.

The 737 MAX and its LEAP-1B engines are a thing of beauty, but—naturally—it’s those 3D printed fuel nozzles that have really caught our attention. According to GE Aviation, whose joint venture with French aircraft manufacturer Snecma spawned CFM International, these 19 3D printed fuel nozzles, made from a nickel cobalt alloy, could not have been made using any other manufacturing process.

3D printing the new fuel nozzles has reportedly produced numerous technical advantages. GE claims that these nozzles are 25% lighter than their predecessors, as well as being a great deal simpler—18 parts were previously required to make such a nozzle, but that number has now been reduced to just 1. The 3D printed fuel nozzles also show off new design features, such as more intricate cooling pathways and support ligaments. These structural features of the 3D printed design will reportedly result in a 5X increase in durability compared with conventionally manufactured alternatives.

The CFM International LEAP-1B engines are impressive in other respects besides their use of 3D printed components. The engine CMCs, for example, were originally developed for one of GE’s lines of gas turbines, but were found to be extremely well-suited to the aircraft engine instead—GE calls this culture of mix-and-match technology the “GE Store”. The engine will also provide double-digit improvements in fuel consumption and CO2 emissions over the previous model, as well as “dramatic reductions” in engine noise and emissions.

CFM began testing the LEAP-1B in June 2014 as part of the most extensive testing program in the company’s history. To date, the LEAP program has logged over 8,000 hours and nearly 17,000 cycles of ground and flight testing, with those rigorous procedures paying off handsomely during Friday’s flight. “The flight was a success,” said Captain Ed Wilson, chief pilot for the 737 MAX program. “The 737 MAX just felt right in flight, giving us complete confidence that this airplane will meet our customers’ expectations.”

Images from GE

3,072 737 MAX aircraft, each containing two LEAP-1B engines complete with 3D printed fuel nozzles, have been sold to 62 airlines and customers, with initial deliveries set for 2017. The implementation of 3D printed fuel nozzles in the CFM engine represents one of the most significant uses of additive manufacturing in the aerospace industry to date. Should the engine prove itself a success in the long term, 3D printed engine components could soon become commonplace.

 

 

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