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Proof That 3-D Printing Will Change Aviation Forever

By Steve Heller - Dec 14, 2013 at 9:45AM

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Open collaboration and advanced manufacturing have brought aviation to new heights.

General Electric (GE -2.96%) recently held a contest for the online engineering community to help solve one of its biggest aviation challenges and knocked it out of the park. The aviation giant asked "makers," or do-it-yourselfers with engineering experience, to take a conventionally manufactured metal jet engine loading bracket and reimagine it for 3-D metal printing manufacturing to achieve a lighter weight, but still maintain its strength. The community response was outstanding -- nearly 700 designs were submitted from 56 countries.

The winner, M. Arie Kurniawan, an engineer with zero aviation engineering experience living in Indonesia, won first place and took home a $7,000 prize. Kurniawan's design reduced the bracket's overall weight by nearly 84% while still maintaining the strength requirements necessary for real-world conditions, which at times needs to withstand loads as high as 9,500 pounds.

The winning 3-D-printed bracket. Source: GE

The motivating factor
One of 3-D printing's greatest advantages over conventional manufacturing is that it can make complicated objects that would otherwise be extremely difficult to manufacture. Not only does this invite a higher level of creative freedom into the design process, but it also gives engineers the opportunity to design a much lighter-weight part without having to sacrifice on structural integrity.

A conventional jet-engine bracket typically weighs around 100 pounds, and it usually takes six brackets to mount one engine to a plane's wing. Since the 3-D-printed equivalent has proved to be 84% lighter, that translates to a weight reduction of more than 1,000 pounds on a typical twin-engine jetliner. Bear in mind we're only talking about 12 redesigned brackets inside a plane that has thousands upon thousands of brackets and fasteners. As 3-D printing continues advancing beyond engine brackets, the potential net weight savings and corresponding fuel savings could be absolutely game-changing for airline operators.

The original bracket design. Source: GE.

Everyone's a winner
Pushing the boundaries of 3-D metal printing for aviation applications has significant benefits across the entire spectrum. From a manufacturing standpoint, 3-D printing can reduce assembly time because it can create more complicated structures than conventional manufacturing methods, freeing up valuable resources on the production floor. In addition, the implied weight reduction and fuel savings could allow GE to sell its 3-D-printed products at a premium to conventionally manufactured parts.

From an operational standpoint, the weight savings will translate to cost savings for fuel, which, in a competitive environment like commercial aviation, could lead to lower airfare prices for passengers. Of course, none of this would have been possible without the help of the community-driven effort.

The power of community
What's so incredible about this story is that the project's true potential would've been almost impossible to realize without the community driving the design effort. Without the community, the chances that GE would have found this engineer based in Indonesia were slim to none. It really speaks volumes about how open collaboration can achieve far greater results than what's possible alone.

Thanks to this worldwide collaborative effort, a challenge that has plagued aviation experts for years was solved in eight weeks. If you thought the maker community was just a bunch of do-yourselfers who like to tinker in their parents' basement, you'd be sorely mistaken. Open collaboration and 3-D printing just changed aviation forever.

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