Photo: Pratt & Whitney
CONFIRMATION as to how seriously some companies are taking additive manufacturing, popularly known as 3D printing, came on November 20th when GE Aviation, part of the world’s biggest manufacturing group, bought a privately owned company called Morris Technologies.This is a small precision-engineering firm employing 130 people in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio.
Morris Technologies has invested heavily in 3D printing equipment and will be printing bits for a new range of jet engines.
Morris Technologies uses a number of 3D printing machines, all of which work by using a digital description of an object to build it in physical form, layer by layer. Among the 3D printing technologies used by Morris Technologies is laser sintering. This involves spreading a thin layer of metallic powder onto a build platform and then fusing the material with a laser beam. The process is repeated until an object emerges. Laser sintering is capable of producing all kinds of metal parts, including components made from aerospace-grade titanium.
One of the attractions of printing parts is that it saves material. Instead of machining components from solid billets of metal, in which much of it may be cut away, only the material that is needed to shape the part is used. Printed parts can also be made lighter than forged parts, which promises fuel savings.
Many manufacturers already use 3D printing to make prototypes of parts, because it is cheaper and more flexible than tooling up to produce just one or two items. But the technology is now good enough for it to be used to make production items too.
Among the components that Morris Technologies plans to print will be some used in the LEAP jet engine (pictured), which is being developed by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and Snecma of France. The LEAP engine is scheduled to enter service in the next few years on a number of short-haul airliners. More than 4,000 engines have already been ordered.
GE is buying Morris Technologies (which includes a sister company, Rapid Quality Manufacturing) for an undisclosed sum. GE sees the purchase as an investment in an important new manufacturing technology. “Our ability to develop state of the art manufacturing processes for emerging materials and complex design geometry is critical to our future,” said Colleen Athans, general manager of GE Aviation’s supply-chain operations.
Some people think additive manufacturing will overturn many of the economics of production because it pays no heed to unit labour costs or traditional economies of scale. Designs can be quickly changed, so the technology enables flexible production and mass customisation.
The GE deal is further evidence for those who believe that product innovation will increasingly go hand-in-hand with manufacturing innovation. So proximity of production and R&D will matter more. With GE Aviation based just outside Cincinnati, the firms are almost neighbours.
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