3D printed jet engine debuts at Avalon airshow

A 3D printed jet engine developed by engineers at Monash University has debuted at the Avalon airshow. The first of its kind, it is hoped that the innovation will push Australia to the forefront of the global aerospace industry. 

In both commercial and military aviation, the lightness and cost effectiveness of components is crucial. While 3D printing has long been thought of as expensive, it's usefulness and more widespread adoption is making it more viable than ever.

Performance and economic benefits

Printed parts as a concept have long intrigued the aviation industry, and this latest project will only strengthen that interest further. Alongside timeliness and the relatively simple process it takes to produce components, there will likely be environmental and economic benefits that accompany a shift towards more 3D printed-based manufacturing.

"[The aerospace] industry wants particular performance benefits, under particular conditions, we understand what they need and why, and we are increasingly able to deliver it. I believe the next generation of aerospace manufacturing may well start here, in Australia," explained one of the leaders of the project Xinhua Wu.

The race to be first in the sector is important – with Australia leading the way – as those that adopted the technology some time ago already have a solid foundation of knowledge and a portfolio of work behind them. 

"We have personnel that have 10 years' experience on this equipment and that gives us a huge advantage," Simon Marriott, chief executive of Amaero Engineering, a private company set up by Monash University, told Reuters.

For the aerospace companies, timescale is the main draw. Getting products to market from the concept stage to delivering them to the market will always be a challenge for the vast majority of manufacturers, but 3D printing can go some way in negating tight deadlines.

"This … allow[s] aerospace companies to compress their development cycles because we are making these prototype engines three or four times faster than normal," Mr Marriot​t continued.

The man in the street may assume that 3D printing is still relatively rudimentary, but the developments made by Monash University show that complexity going forward will not be an issue.

Rolls-Royce and 3D printing

To that end, Rolls-Royce has also announced that it will be testing some of the biggest 3D printed parts ever produced in any sector on a selection of its engines.

The titanium front bearing housing on the Trent XWB-97 jet engine would typically be made via traditional manufacturing, but the company is pioneering the new printing technology and has subsequently produced the part, which measures over 1.5 metres across.

While many tests have been done on the ground, Rolls-Royce is the first company to test such a part in flight. The engine would typically be found under the wings of an Airbus A350, but Rolls-Royce will not be rolling out the printed parts into its wider production line just yet.

However, if the tests do indeed prove successful, this could be yet another step towards 3D printing becoming the widely accepted manufacturing norm.

Innovation at Avalon

Like the 3D printed engine produced by Monash, many of Rolls-Royce's engines were in focus at the Avalon airshow. The growing strength of aviation and defence in Asia Pacific has seen the event in Geelong, Victoria become one of the main gateways to markets in the region.

In efforts to drive modernisation in the area – and encourage more projects such as the ongoing work of Monash – the airshow holds its own Industry Innovation Awards in which 12 Australia-based civil and military contractors are shortlisted.

The awards aim to recognise local companies for their innovative work, while also helping them establish deals that wouldn't have been negotiated otherwise. 

"Australian innovators have helped make the Royal Australian Air Force a global benchmark for capability and professionalism, while simultaneously creating a century-long tradition of safe and efficient air transport, both domestically and across the globe," said Aerospace Australia CEO Ian Honnery.

A big winner was manufacturing company Quickstep. It specialises in carbon fibre parts and, although not based around 3D printing specifically, the company's innovative approach to batch processing is incredibly fast – one of the main reasons that it secured the award.

While manufacturing carbon fibre differs from 3D printing – speed, strength of the end of the product and relative cost effectiveness are what ultimately makes them both appealing to the aerospace sector.

"We can very quickly get a final product, so the advantages of this technology are, firstly, for rapid prototyping and making a large number of prototypes quickly. Secondly, for being able to make bespoke parts that you wouldn't be able to with classic engineering technologies," Ian Smith, Monash University's vice-provost for research explained to Reuters.

Civil and military aviation will always be two sectors that demand technology that is at the cutting-edge, if others follow suit in attitude, 3D printing could soon be one of the accepted standards for a whole plethora of manufacturing processes.

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