Large-scale 3D printed components are now getting ever larger in scale — and in terms of ambition. Later this year, Rolls-Royce — that multi-faceted company perhaps most widely known for producing fine luxury vehicles but also a major manufacturer of engines for such applications as the huge Airbus aircraft — intends to debut the world’s largest-ever 3D printed object when it flight-tests a Trent XWB-97 engine incorporating this component.
The Airbus A350-1000, still in development itself, utilizes the XWB-97 (which provides 97,000 pounds of thrust) as its sole engine. Several successful ground-tests have been carried out, but a 3D printed component of that magnitude has not yet been flight-tested. The flight-test will be proof in action of additive manufacturing’s place in engine manufacturing, at the very least for prototyping.
Following the anticipated success of the component’s performance in the flight-test later this year, the 3D printed piece will not appear as-is in the production-quality XWB-97. However, the potential is there for it to ultimately appear beyond the prototyping and experimental phases.
The 3D printed nickel component represents an unprecedented size, with a 1.5m diameter and 0.5m-thick front bearing housing that contains 48 airfoils. Rolls-Royce notes that the use of additive manufacturing in this application could cut “like-for-like manufacturing lead time” by 30% from traditional techniques.
“[Additive manufacturing] is ideal for prototyping. Shortening the manufacturing time by almost a third gives us more time to design, which is always a benefit,” said Chief Engineer for Future Programmes and Technology Alan Newby. “We are also able to produce designs that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.”
Rolls-Royce has teamed up with experts from the University of Sheffield in the UK and Arcam of Sweden for 3D printing work. The company has, for over half-a-decade now, been using 3D printing technologies for component repair. Their preferred technique utilizes metal powder, which is melted via an electron beam and layered in ultra-thin extrusions to achieve the complex geometries required for high-quality, high-performance engine components.
As for the “when,” though? That’s still up for debate. While the initial flight-test to see how a 3D printed major engine component holds up at altitude has been announced for 2015, otherwise Rolls-Royce has not provided a timeline for further developments. Likely this will hinge on the performance seen in that test, which will indicate requisite levels of further development.
“We don’t want to put a date on it,” says Newby. “We have a lot of work to do on scaleability before making a commitment to production.”
3D printing will, especially if used for end-use components in flight-ready engines, add greatly to Rolls-Royce’s initiative toward lightweighting. The Trent XWB-97 utilizes light-weight components throughout, and the structure of the large 3D printed nickel piece enhances the aerodynamics of the overall engine.
Let us know what you think about Rolls-Royce’s ambitious use of 3D printing in aircraft engines in the Largest 3D Printed Component forum thread over at 3DPB.com. Check out more photos from Rolls-Royce below, including an infographic on these powerful engines.