Science and Exploration

AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference: Additive Manufacturing: Progress and Obstacles

By Marc Boucher
July 30, 2014
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AIAA Propulsion and Energy Conference: Additive Manufacturing: Progress and Obstacles
File photo: Hot-Fire tests show 3-D printed rocket parts.

Additive manufacturing will allow companies to reduce their parts production time-line from “a couple of months and weeks to a couple of weeks and days,” creating tremendous cost savings for companies that can leverage the technology, said Greg Morris, manager of additive manufacturing and business development at GE Aviation.
Speaking on Wednesday morning at AIAA’s Propulsion and Energy Forum in Cleveland, he also predicted that the current “3-billion-dollar industry will grow to a $100-billion-dollar industry within a decade.”

GE Aviation has been a leader in this field, said Morris, who then gave an overview of the company’s additive manufacturing enterprise. To illustrate the technique’s importance to a company’s bottom line, he cited GE’s new LEAP engine, which will come on line in 2016. Additive manufacturing produced the engine’s 18 fuel nozzles, reducing engine weight “by 25 percent” and offering tremendous fuel savings based on that lower weight. The program will require 40,000 nozzles a year, all to be produced via additive means. Savings will also result from decreased production time, he said.

While additive manufacturing brings significant advantages, said Morris, many challenges temper those benefits. One problem is that machines are vulnerable to power failures, which can result in parts with “witness lines, caused by the machine shutting off and then starting again. With complex parts, this creates a need to begin the process again. Another potential challenge is that horizontal micro-holes can occur when parts are not aligned correctly during the process. Yet another problem can occur when incorrect part thickness causes “part separation from the platform, requiring additional anchoring.” Morris noted that “right now, inspection processes account for 25 percent of the total cost of parts produced additively.” He said costs must decrease before the technology can gain wider acceptance.

The most important challenge to wider use of additive manufacturing in industry, said Morris, is machine throughput, ¬or the ability of the machines to process manufacturing tasks. Machine throughput “is small right now,” he said. “If we can…build machines that can get throughput that is 10 times what is now, then everyone will jump on additive manufacturing as a future investment….Throughput drives costs – the higher the throughput, the lower the cost.”

By Duane Hyland, AIAA Communications

SpaceRef co-founder, entrepreneur, writer, podcaster, nature lover and deep thinker.