3D printing making commercial inroads in the aerospace industry

portrait of Professor Xinhua Wu 

Image: Professor Xinhua Wu.
Image courtesy: Monash University.

Researchers at the ARC Research Hub for Transforming Australia’s Manufacturing Industry through High Value Additive Manufacturing have taken their cutting edge 3D printing technology into a commercial application, with the signing of an agreement to print turbojet components for Safran Power Units, a French-based global aerospace and defence company. Then, only days after the announcement of the partnership in Paris, the research team and their Australian partner, Amaero Engineering, were awarded the Business/Higher Education Round Table (B/HERT) Research Translation Award, a new award made for the first time in 2016.

Hub Director, Professor Xinhua Wu, whose research team at Monash University revealed the world’s first 3D printed jet engine at the 2014 Melbourne International Airshow, said that leverage from the ARC helped them to compete with French organisations for the contract to print jet engine parts.

“It is very fortunate that the ARC has programs like the Industrial Transformation Research Program and the Linkage Projects scheme for improving industry collaboration. Otherwise, why would [a French company] come this far?” said Professor Wu. “This is massive to become a qualified aerospace supplier. This is a really big deal.”

The potential advantages of 3D printing parts for jet engines include: reductions in the time required to design and create the part; a reduction of the weight of parts; a reduction in operational and production costs; and potentially a reduction in impact on the environment. Although 3D printing has for many years been in use in the aerospace industry to create polymer parts, printing metallic parts for functioning jet engines is much harder due to the mechanical properties required of materials which must operate faultlessly while under enormous stresses and temperatures.

In order to print alloys that are tough and strong enough for jet engine parts, Professor Wu’s team engineers parts to incredible levels of precision, drawing on their deep reserve of metallurgical knowledge and specialist research equipment.

“We used microscope facilities at Monash University, as well as the Australian Synchrotron and equipment purchased from an ARC Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme grant in 2012,” said Professor Wu. “For aerospace industries, it is essential that the material has the right microstructure to meet the requirement for mechanical properties and no defects, as any imperfection could cause crack initiation and reduction of life under cycling loading.”

As Professor Wu’s team has become expert at 3D printing, other opportunities are on the horizon for different applications of this technology. Professor Wu says that there is a need for customised 3D printed biomedical titanium implants of bones like the tibia and jaw, which can be met when the current technology is streamlined for speed.

“Printing biomedical implants is very easy—compared to an engine—the bottle neck in terms of turnaround, is the software. At the moment, we have to manually remove the fractured gap or tumour from CT scan on the computer. So what we hope to do is develop the software to do this work, and this could speed up the process 10,000 times. If we could design in a day, print the implant and transport it in two days, then we could fit into the standard one-week turnaround schedule of doctors.”

3D printing technology clearly holds the promise of transforming manufacturing processes in many different fields of engineering. Having now broken in to the aerospace industry, Professor Wu’s ambitions for her research team at the ARC Research Hub for Transforming Australia’s Manufacturing Industry through High Value Additive Manufacturing clearly reach beyond the sky.