Nov.14, 2013

Rolls-Royce is considering using 3D printing to manufacture lighter components for its aircraft engines, and it is only "a few years away" from using the technology to produce parts that go into service.

Dr. Henner Wapenhans, the company's head of technology strategy, said 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing would enable Rolls-Royce to create better lightweight structures and slash lead times, the Financial Times reported.

"3D printing opens up new possibilities, new design space," Dr Wapenhans said. "Through the 3D printing process, you're not constrained [by] having to get a tool in to create a shape. You can create any shape you like."

Dr Wapenhans said the technology could be used to reduce the weight of parts such as brackets. "There are studies that show one can create better lightweight structures, because you just take the analogy of what nature does and how bones are built up – they're not solid material."

"And so simple things like brackets can be made a lot lighter."

General Electric said recently that the company plans to build more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for its newest jet engine, using 3D printing to create the units in one piece. The components created with direct metal laser melting are stronger and lighter than with conventional machining, said GE.

Dr Wapenhans added that the parts could be made a lot quicker, slashing lead times and gaining an "inventory advantage," with less need to store parts.

"One of the great advantages in the aerospace world is that some of these parts that we make have very long lead times, because of the tooling process that's got to [happen], and then it takes potentially 18 months to get the first part after placing an order – versus printing it, which could be done quite rapidly.

"Even if it takes a week to print, that's still a lot faster."

Credit Suisse sees a 30% compound annual growth rate for 3D printing's expansion into aerospace. Rolls-Royce's rival United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney aircraft-engine unit is using 3D printing to make blades and vanes in compressors inside jet engines, and it also opened an additive manufacturing research center at the University of Connecticut in April. Honeywell's aerospace unit employs 3D printing to build heat exchangers and metal brackets.

For all its advantages, 3D printing is still limited by high costs, and it will have to get much faster and cheaper before it can account for a sizable chunk of industrial production.

Posted in 3D Printing Applications



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