Oct 3, 2017 | By Benedict

Rolls-Royce has teamed up with AMAZE, a collaboration of 26 European institutions from academia, research, and industry, to improve additive manufacturing processes using the Diamond Light Source synchrotron, which produces incredibly bright flashes of light.

Rolls-Royce uses additive manufacturing to produce aircraft engine blades

You might come across many 3D printing companies describing themselves as the “Rolls-Royce of 3D printing.” But now that the actual automotive icon has started getting involved with additive manufacturing projects, those claims will probably have to cease.

After launching a $45 million aerospace 3D printing facility in Singapore last month, Rolls-Royce is now turning its attention to another high-tech additive scheme: improving its own metal 3D printing processes using a flash of light that is 10 billion times brighter than the sun.

“What?” you might well ask. The reasons for needing an impossibly bright light are quite complex, but when you learn more about what Rolls-Royce is doing in the world of 3D printing, it starts to make sense.

Rolls-Royce, as you may know, isn’t just a manufacturer of luxury cars. It’s also a manufacturer of aeroplane jet engines, and has been since the First World War, when the car company’s engineering expertise was seen as a potentially game-changing tool for the British military.

And while production of 3D printed cars is certainly accelerating around the world, it’s the aerospace division of Rolls-Royce that has turned to additive manufacturing for some seriously innovative projects.

To make its aircraft engine blades, Rolls-Royce uses a form of laser deposition 3D printing, melting metal powder particles by blowing them into the path of a high-energy laser beam.

Sometimes, these blades get damaged due to heat and pressure conditions, and Rolls-Royce then has to fix them by milling off the damaged areas and replacing them using additive manufacturing.

The team looking to improve additive manufacturing for Rolls-Royce

But the engineering company also wants to find ways of preventing damage altogether, by eliminating as many defects from the engine blades as is humanly possible.

To do so, it has teamed up with AMAZE, a collaboration of 26 European institutions from academia, research, and industry, to take a closer look at the 3D printing process and find out how it can be improved.

The main weapon at their disposal is the Diamond Light Source synchrotron in Harwell, Oxfordshire, which Diamond Light Source CEO Andrew Harrison describes in a feature with Eureka as “a storage ring which circulates electrons close to the speed of light.”

“As it goes round the ring, the current of electrons gives off a brilliant flash of light in the x-ray part of the spectrum,” Harrison adds. “We use that light to feed instruments that we think of as very high-powered microscopes.”

The synchrotron is a huge donut-shaped structure with a circumference of 561.6 meters, making it twice as long as London’s The Shard skyscraper is tall. 500 members of staff operate the machine, whose electron speed is three gigaelectronvolts. For perspective, that’s fast enough to go round the world 7.5 times in a second.

But it’s those high-powered microscopes that Rolls-Royce and AMAZE are using to take a closer look at the laser deposition 3D printing system that is used to make the engine blades. And it is indeed a very close look: regular lab X-ray technology allows for the capture of 100 frames per second, but the synchrotron can capture 10,000.

This phenomenal frame rate allows the Rolls-Royce and AMAZE team to see exactly what’s happening during the laser 3D printing process—even if they don't necessarily understand what they're seeing.

“You can see molten pools forming and also defects developing during the melt track evolution,” says Alex Leung, an aerospace materials engineer from the University of Manchester, one of the research partners on AMAZE. “We also see lots of powders that are blowing off (ejecting away from) the powder bed. Some of them may be melt droplets which could add to surface roughness on the additive manufacturing component.”

It’s aspects like this roughness that the engineers want to understand and, ultimately, eliminate. They believe that surface roughness could adversely affect turbine blade performance, while the splattering droplets also waste valuable metal powder, increasing the cost of 3D printing.

The Diamond Light source synchrotron in Oxfordshire, UK

“You want to make something that is perfectly smooth,” Leung says. “You want to get all of the powder into there. Looking at just a single layer may not be representative. What we have done is add more powders onto the layer above and then repeat the process which is exactly what happens in the real-life process.”

Using the synchrotron, the team can gather around 500 terabytes of data per year on the 3D printing process, but what they need to do is use that information to find areas of potential improvement. At present, the engineers say, it’s a bit of a crapshoot.

“The controllable point [of laser metal deposition is] just above the surface, where the laser hits the powder,” explains Peter Lee, Professor of Materials Imaging at the University of Manchester and leader of the AMAZE project. “No one actually knows what happens from then on. We are not really sure whether the laser is melting it on the surface or melting the powder in the air. You get powder blowing off the side, you get oscillations in the surface and we are not sure why.”

But by employing the synchrotron for longer periods, Lee and the team think they will be able to discover what is happening “inside the nozzle.”

Ultimately, the most satisfying conclusion to the project would be developing a closed-loop control system for Rolls-Royce using machine learning, creating the most uniform deposition possible. Whether that is possible, however, depends on the team’s results, which could be published in the near future after a year and a half of research.

If Rolls-Royce is able to improve its additive manufacturing process using the results of the study, the benefits could include faster, cheaper, and more high-quality 3D printing, as well as increased engine performance, reduced CO2 emissions, and quieter takeoff and landing.



Posted in 3D Printing Technology



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Steve Garrey wrote at 10/10/2017 9:24:53 AM:

Wow, almost there to enable the construction of an engine.

David Wimpenny (MTC & coordinator of AMAZE Project) wrote at 10/4/2017 10:46:30 AM:

VERY confusing article AMAZE (EU FP7 project) was led by ESA and then MTC took over for the last 2 years of the project ...Rolls-Royce Plc were not a partner.

Eddie Cassidy wrote at 10/4/2017 9:47:39 AM:

good article but you should have been aware that the automotive part of the business you refer to has nothing to do with Rolls-Royce Aerospace. It is in fact part of BMW and has not been part of Rolls-Royce for 43 years!!

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