General Electric (NYSE: GE ) has been a front runner in jet engine production, and has consistently enhanced its powertrain manufacturing capabilities through innovation, for years. GE has always been a true market leader. And now the company is building the future of its engines through the "next industrial revolution": 3-D printing.
The technology and its benefits
Unlike traditional manufacturing that produces fabricated engine parts through the tooling, lathing, milling, and forging process, 3-D printing builds solid objects or parts by laying down successive layers of material. According to the American Society of Testing and Materials International, 3-D printing (which is also known as "additive manufacturing") is a process of joining materials to make objects from 3-D model data, as opposed to "subtractive" manufacturing methodologies, which are the standard and traditional manufacturing processes. .
The technology offers numerous opportunities to global aviation companies. Not only does it help to produce complicated engine parts with comfortable consistency, it can also create parts that can't be made using the conventional approach. With selective laser sintering (SLS), aerospace companies can make stronger products that can easily withstand temperature of up to 2,400 Fahrenheit inside the engine. 3-D printed sections are expected to be lighter than their traditionally made counterparts. Since engine weight is very critical in the aerospace industry, even a fractional reduction of the component weight can lead to huge fuel cost savings.
GE making inroads
In 2012, GE acquired additive manufacturing specialist Morris Technologies and its sister company Rapid Quality Manufacturing. Other than being GE suppliers for years, the two had catered to various industries -- from making parts for unmanned aerial vehicles for the U.S. military to hip replacement prototypes. . After the acquisition, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt said in a 2013 conference "3-D printing is worth my time, attention, money, and effort." According to a Bloomberg Businessweek article, such a push from the global industry leader could reinforce a 3-D industry that is estimated to triple to around $6 billion annually in sales by 2017.
GE became keener on using the technology for its aviation wing from the middle of 2013, after its nearest rival, Pratt and Whitney,the aviation arm of United Technologies (NYSE: UTX ) , opened an additive manufacturing research center in partnership with the University of Connecticut. GE plans to spend "tens of millions" of dollars in the next five years on the technology. It stated that this spending would represent a portion of the $3.5 billion investment earmarked for its aerospace domain.
On similar lines, P&W is slated to invest around $8 billion till 2018 on 3-D printing, and is currently manufacturing its Geared Turbofan engine using the technology, the first-generation of which will include 24 additive parts. According to a CNBC report, P&W has around 5,500 orders from aircraft makers including Airbus and Bombardier.
In a major development, GE has announced its plans to use 3-D printing to produce 19 fuel nozzles for its new LEAP engines, which will hit the market by 2016. The company is looking to 3-D print 45,000 fuel nozzles a year. Aligned to this goal, GE recently opened an assembly plant in Indiana that would build the world's first passenger jet engine with 3-D printed fuel nozzles.
Additive manufacturing will also be a part of GE's planned advanced manufacturing works facility in its Greenville, South Carolina manufacturing complex, which will begin operating by 2015. The facility will develop prototypes and processes for several of the company's business units. The company intends to spend around $400 million on the project over the next decade.
This is a clear sign of GE's vision and conviction to implement 3-D technology to make its existing processes better and speedier.
Future leap in baby steps
The fuel nozzle technology will help aircraft to save fuel by up to 15% -- enough to save over $1 million per year, per airplane -- and significantly lower carbon emissions. GE strongly believes in this new approach and even consumers are responding quite positively, which is clear from the huge pile of orders received by the company for its new engines. The company's order book currently stands at 6,000 confirmed LEAP engine orders, valued at around $78 billion.
Orders are primarily for the next generation single-aisle planes -- Boeing 737 Max, Airbus 320neo, and COMAC C919 -- which will fly the skies by early 2017. The manufacturing giant is looking at making at least 100,000 aviation parts on 3-D printers by the end of this decade.
GE believes that additive manufacturing is the "the next chapter in the industrial revolution." The aviation sector marks the starting point for 3-D printing, and GE could bring about a manufacturing revolution through a transformational shift from "part to process" with the technology.
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