A decade ago, engineers at CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines, started designing a new, fuel-efficient jet engine for single-aisle passenger planes.

The CFM team got to work and came up with a new engine that could dramatically reduce fuel consumption as well as emissions. A key to the breakthrough was the wildly complex interior of the of the engine’s fuel nozzles. Developed by GE Aviation, the nozzles’ tips spray fuel into the jet engine’s combustor and help determine how efficient it is.

But there was a problem. The tips’ interior geometry was too complex. It had more than 20 parts that had to be welded and brazed together. It was almost impossible to make.

Mohammad Ehteshami, the former head of engineering at GE Aviation who now runs GE Additive, had one last idea for getting the nozzle made. He and others involved in the project now wanted to know whether Morris Technologies would be able to use 3D printing for mass production of a complex part, something nobody had tried before. Starting in the 1990s, GE Aviation engineers in Cincinnati had been working with a local company called 3D printing company Morris Technologies for prototyping.

The team sent Morris a computer model of the nozzle, which was printed from nickel alloy within the next few days.  The nozzle met the team’s wildest expectations. With all 20 parts combined into a single unit, the nozzle also weighed 25 percent less than an ordinary nozzle and was more than five times as durable.

The 3D printed nozzle combined all 20 parts into a single unit, but it also weighed 25 percent less. “In the design of jet engines, complexity used to be expensive,” Ehteshami says. But additive allows you to get sophisticated and reduces costs at the same time. This is an engineer’s dream.” (Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports)

GE Aviation acquired Morris’ company in 2012, and Ehteshami, Morris and their teams immediately started testing the technology’s limits and looking for new applications. Subsequently, GE opened a 3D printing factory for the nozzles in Auburn, Alabama.

In 2016, GE expanded its additive portfolio and spent more than $1 billion to buy controlling stakes in two leading manufacturers of industrial 3D printers: Sweden’s Arcam AB and Germany’s Concept Laser. While Concept Laser’s machines use lasers to shape components from metallic powder, Arcam uses an electron beam, which is more powerful. It enables the machines to print faster and fuse layers as thick at 100 microns, twice the width of what a laser can print. It also can grow parts from wonder materials like titanium aluminate (TiAl), which is 50 percent lighter than steel but very hard to shape. An additive factory in Cameri, Italy, is already printing TiAl turbine blades for the GE9X, a jet engine even larger than the GE90.

GE’s growth in the application of additive manufacturing is innovative and deliberate.  Ehteshami calls his additive awakening an “epiphany of disruption.” Once you start thinking about it, you realize both intellectually and emotionally “if I don’t start moving, somebody else will.”

>> Read more by Tomas Kellner, GE Reports, March 6, 2017

An Ephiphany of Disruption: GE Additive Chief Explains How 3D Printing Will Upend Manufacturing