General Electric is making a radical departure from the way it has traditionally manufactured things. Its aviation division, the world’s largest supplier of jet engines, is preparing to produce a fuel nozzle for a new aircraft engine by printing the part with lasers rather than casting and welding the metal. The technique, known as additive manufacturing (because it builds an object by adding ultrathin layers of material one by one), could transform how GE designs and makes many of the complex parts that go into everything from gas turbines to ultrasound machines.
Additive manufacturing—the industrial version of 3-D printing—is already used to make some niche items, such as medical implants, and to produce plastic prototypes for engineers and designers. But the decision to mass-produce a critical metal-alloy part to be used in thousands of jet engines is a significant milestone for the technology. And while 3-D printing for consumers and small entrepreneurs has received a great deal of publicity, it is in manufacturing where the technology could have its most significant commercial impact (see “The Difference Between Makers and Manufacturers,” January/February 2013).
Last fall, GE purchased a pair of companies with know-how in automated precision manufacturing of metals and then folded the technology into the operations of GE Aviation. That group doesn’t have much time to demonstrate that its new technology can work at scale. CFM International, GE’s joint venture with France’s Snecma, will use the 3-D-printed nozzles in its LEAP jet engine, due to go into planes in late 2015 or early 2016 (CFM says it already has commitments of $22 billion). Each engine will use 10 to 20 nozzles; GE needs to make 25,000 of the nozzles annually within three years.