How 3D Printing Is Set to Disrupt the Aviation Industry

How 3D Printing Is Set to Disrupt the Aviation Industry
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Why you should care

Because air passengers are predicted to double by 2035, and aviation needs a solution to handle that.

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.

Remember when you had to guess at how the hottest guy or girl back in high school turned out? Or stand in the street to hail a cab? The likes of Facebook and Uber might be recent innovations, but they’ve taken no time to disrupt a long-held status quo. Something similar is happening in the world of aviation, only this disruption could save billions of dollars and tons of carbon emissions.

Next year, GE Aviation will debut a new propeller plane engine that behaves more like a jet engine — burning significantly less fuel than other models in its class while providing more power. The engine will be doing its thing in an aircraft that carries an entry-level price tag ($4.8 million — a bargain, as planes go). More power, less fuel and cheaper — sounds too good to be true, right? Thank 3D printing, the most disruptive technology to affect manufacturing in recent decades. The possibilities of 3D printing have emboldened GE’s engineers to create all-new engine designs that are ripping up the rulebook. Today, the technology has given us a high-performance, low-cost propeller plane engine. Tomorrow, it could clean up large-scale commercial aviation dramatically.

The number of air travelers will double to 7.2 billion by 2035.

The timing couldn’t be better: Commercial aviation is ripe for disruption. In October last year, the International Air Transport Association predicted the number of air travelers will double to 7.2 billion by 2035. The year before that, Boeing forecast that continued growth in air passenger traffic would create demand for more than 38,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years. To meet those requirements, aviation needs new solutions, and fast.

Aircraft manufacturers are starting to heed the call. Textron Aviation bought the new engine for its new private business propeller plane, the Cessna Denali. The turboprop engine plays a large part in the new aircraft’s offerings, giving the comfort and convenience of a private jet at a fraction of the price. To keep costs down and performance high, the engine features 3D printed titanium and steel components in place of hundreds of individually manufactured parts.

ge engine

Source GE Aviation

In addition, the design combines the best of jet and turboprop tech, including jet engine technologies that have never before been used in a turboprop of this size. That includes mechanisms that increase pressure and temperature inside the compressor and turbine, extracting more work while allowing the pilot to control the engine and propeller with a single lever, just like with a jet. According to GE, this design uses 20 percent less fuel and 10 percent more power than equivalent engines.

Brad Mottier, who led the new engine’s development, said packaging these new technologies together not only improves aircraft performance, but can also extend time between engine overhauls by more than 30 percent. In a future world of more than 7 billion air passengers, that sort of innovation won’t go unappreciated.

While the future will likely herald better, cleaner jet engines, an overhaul of commercial aviation’s footprint could still be a ways off. GE’s engine is meant for a small, single-aisle propeller plane seating up to eight passengers, and offers a range that would carry you from Chicago to Los Angeles, or Miami to New York. Even still, it was seven years in the making, and is yet to make its maiden voyage. According to Textron’s senior vice president of engineering, Michael Thacker, the first flight will take off in 2018. For now, then, it’s more brilliant idea than revolutionary reality. That said, Kriya Shortt, Textron Aviation’s senior vice president of sales and marketing, says “the order book is open.”

Whatever the next 20 years bring, the reality is that the aviation industry must meet massive demand for new aircraft while keeping costs down for customers. Any new engine design offering that is going to be popular. It may be that 3D printing will play a part in this brave new world — and while GE’s new engine might be starting small, it’s thinking big.

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