© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
July 10, 2014 12:18 pm
The machines lining either side of the room at GE Aviation’s Additive Technologies laboratory on the edge of Cincinnati look like nothing so much as microwave ovens, complete with glass viewing windows and handles on the doors. However, the signs reading “export sensitive” blocking the view into some show that something more unusual is cooking here.
Behind the glass doors, laser beams dance over layers of metallic dust. The areas that the beams hit turn into solid metal. When the laser has finished each layer, an arm sweeps over, laying a new film of dust, ready for the laser to start sintering – as the process is known – the next 20 microns (0.02mm) of the product under construction.
The machines are building parts by a process known as additive manufacturing – the building of objects layer-by-layer, direct from computer designs. The technology, previously seen as a niche method mostly of use for prototypes or emergency spare parts, is reaching maturity with the Leap engine under development for CFM, GE Aviation’s joint venture with France’s Safran.
Each Leap engine will have fuel nozzles built by additive manufacturing. GE estimates that half a percentage point of the 15 per cent fuel saving it is targeting for the Leap engine will come from having lighter, more efficient fuel nozzles thanks to the new process.
“It’s one of the technologies that people are just starting to understand its capabilities and how it can be disruptive to their business,” says Greg Morris, leader of the additive technologies group. Mr Morris founded the operation as a freestanding company but sold it to General Electric in 2012.
David Joyce, GE Aviation’s chief executive, says additive manufacturing frees the company from the restrictions imposed by traditional manufacturing methods.
“Somebody just took all those constraints off you with additives,” he says. “Additives give engineers a brand new canvas to paint on.”
However, with 6,620 Leaps already on order and each requiring 19 nozzles, GE faces the challenge of scaling up considerably its additive manufacturing capacity. The challenge will be met, partly, through productivity improvements – future laser sintering machines will work two to three times as fast, according to Mr Morris.
The company will also have to find a bigger site to produce the fuel nozzles and expects to announce at July’s Farnborough Air Show where it will be.
“It will be five times larger,” Mr Morris says. “It will be a far more impressive facility.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.
Sign up for email briefings to stay up to date on topics you are interested in