FARNBOROUGH: GE to open Alabama 3-D printing factory

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GE Aviation has decided to equip a factory in Auburn, Alabama, to make engine fuel nozzles using additive manufacturing techniques.

It will create the first factory in the jet propulsion industry dedicated to mass production of components by 3-D printers, GE says.

The equipment, due to be installed later this year, will build the 19 fuel nozzles installed in each CFM International Leap-1 engine. Production capacity will be sized to build up to 1,000 nozzles per year at first, then grow to more than 40,000 annually by within five years, the company says.

That pace reflects the steep ramp-up on the Leap-1 programme, which is powering the Airbus A320neo, Boeing 737 Max and Comac C919. The three aircraft makers will combine to build more than 1,000 narrowbodies annually by 2020.

As production ramps up, GE is shifting to new way of manufacturing the fuel nozzles, which were previously formed using castings. Each fuel nozzle is designed with intricate passageways that are difficult to manufacture.

Rather than shaping a part by milling away excess material, a 3-D printer builds in microscopic layers by using a laser or electron beam. The process allows component makers to bypass the lengthy lead-times required for ordering raw materials. It also can be designed in a way that is tailored to optimise the performance of the part.

The fuel nozzle in the Leap engine ranks among the first applications of additive manufacturing techniques for a complex aerospace component.

Fuel nozzles are intricate components that route kerosene into the combustion chamber, but in a very specific way to avoid flare-ups that create harmful emissions and lower fuel efficiency.

GE acquired Morris Technologies and Rapid Quality Manufacturing in 2012 to jump-start its pursuit of additive manufacturing techniques.