Could Da Vinci Have Predicted This? The Tech That Italy's Leading

Could Da Vinci Have Predicted This? The Tech That Italy's Leading
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Why you should care

Because a new “wonder material” could lower the cost of your next flight.

OZY and GE are partnering to bring you an inside look into how additive manufacturing is changing the way things are made across industries and across the world.

Easily overlooked in the shadow of its flashy neighbors Milan and Turin, the small town of Cameri might seem an unlikely place in which to explore the cutting edge of 3D printing. But then, Italy has long staked a place for itself at the forefront of invention, going all the way back to the 1480s, when Leonardo da Vinci drew designs for an “aerial screw” — a precursor to the helicopter. Since then, Italians have amassed an impressive roll call of revolutionary engineering, from the first fully functioning, manned hydrofoil ship (Enrico Forlanini, 1900) to wireless radio communication (Guglielmo Marconi, 1901). And when it comes to Italy’s habit of leading innovation, 3D printing appears to be no exception.

This factory has helped us understand what the art of the possible is.

David Joyce, GE Aviation

Sitting at the edge of unassuming Cameri is Europe’s most advanced additive manufacturing — or 3D printing — factory. Opened by Avio Aero, an Italian specialist in aeronautical design and production, it has fast garnered a rep as the future of how to make things. And that lofty promise is only being magnified by GE Aviation’s acquisition of Avio Aero. “This factory has helped us understand what the art of the possible is,” says David Joyce, GE Aviation’s president and CEO. Considering the huge drive from GE to launch the 3D printing revolution, it’s no small statement when Joyce adds that “Italy and Avio Aero will be at the center of the growth of our additive ecosystem.”

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Avio Aero, an Italian specialist in aeronautical design and production.

Source Courtesy of Avio Aero

This acquisition is just the latest in a growing line of investments from GE, made specifically to take the lead in additive manufacturing. Hailed as a breakthrough technology, additive turns traditional manufacturing on its head by adding material layer on layer to build parts, as opposed to subtracting parts by cutting them from material. Not only does that save on waste but also, as Avio Aero manufacturing engineer Dario Mantegazza explains, “from a design point of view, there are huge advantages in terms of degrees of freedom.”

Put simply: Engineers can design parts on their computers, then send their drawings to a 3D printer, which breaks down the design files into individual layers and “prints” them by depositing or fusing layers of material, such as metal powder. “There are no limits to complexity,” Mantegazza says. A good example is a propeller plane engine recently developed by GE Aviation, where 3D printing helped reduce the number of parts used from 800 to just 12.

At the factory in Cameri, Avio Aero is taking even greater leaps and bounds by experimenting with a “wonder material,” titanium aluminide. Why the “wonder”? First, it’s 50 percent lighter than nickel-based alloys, so thicker parts can be made without also being made heavier. Second, the factory is printing on machines developed by Arcam — a GE partner — which use an electron gun to accelerate the beam that fuses the material together. That electron gun is crucial, because it renders the beam several times more powerful than the lasers typically used for printing metal parts. The machines can also build more than one part at a time. That, in turn, means Mantegazza and his team can build thicker parts, faster.

The factory has made turbine blades for GE Aviation’s new GE9X jet engine, the largest jet engine ever built (it’s so large that, GE claims, a London tube train could be run through it). The blades are key to the engine’s performance, as they feed air into a compressor to create the highest-ever pressure ratio of any commercial jet engine — which, in layman’s terms, means it’s considerably more efficient. According to GE, the engine can produce 100,000 pounds of thrust — four times as much as two engines can achieve in a top-of-the-range fighter aircraft.

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A pair of Arcam machines at Avio Aero’s additive manufacturing factory in Cameri.

Source Courtesy of Avio Aero

Still, the GE9X has more rigorous testing ahead before it’s ready to go into service — though GE expects it to be certified by the end of 2018, and to be powering passengers across the skies by the end of the decade. And while it’s still far from a fully 3D-printed engine, it does boast fuel nozzles made by additive manufacturing. GE will work on integrating more 3D-printed parts into engine designs in the future, pushing toward a time when entire engines can be 3D printed. The machines and materials used at the Cameri factory will play an important part in that, given one of the greatest barriers to mass use of additive is cost — Mantegazza reckons the method used to make the turbine blades is fast enough to be competitive with casting, the standard way to make parts with his “wonder material.”

Plus, according to Franco Tortarolo, who runs Avio Aero’s research programs, the Cameri factory has the advantage of nearby tech incubators like the Turin Polytechnic, which helped Avio Aero master the electron beam technology. Tortarolo reports that the school is opening a new research lab this year, slated to focus on new materials for printing and on testing new machines. There’s that innovative Italian streak again. “If Leonardo da Vinci could see what we are doing,” Tortarolo says, “he would be proud.”

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