New horizons in 3D printing

Rolls-Royce’s Neil Mantle explains how cutting-edge 3D printing technology is revolutionising the production of aero-engine components

November 5 marked a milestone in aviation history when Rolls-Royce completed the first test flight of the largest aero-engine components ever to be 3D-printed. 3D printing – or additive layer manufacturing (ALM) – could revolutionise the aerospace industry and the lives of those who work in it, as Neil Mantle, head of Rolls-Royce’s centre of competence for additive layer manufacturing, explains.

It’s nothing like printing bits of plastic. We use an electron or laser beam to melt titanium and complex nickel alloys at 1,400-1,600C. We build up successive layers 20-100microns thick and each new layer also melts into the existing surface, so we’re creating the properties of the component at the same time as its shape. It’s the 21st century equivalent of casting.

Our new Trent XWB-97 engine contains a world first. The front bearing housing measures 1.5m across and contains 48 titanium aerofoil stators to guide air into the engines compressor. Each stator is 300mm tall and up to 100mm wide at its extents and every one of the aerofoils was made using ALM. That makes the components and the housing the largest aero engine structures ever to be made and flown using 3D-printing to date.

We’re not talking one-offs. We’ve made hundreds of these aerofoils – 48 for each of the bearing housings for our ground test and first flying development engines for XWB-97 – and we ran the project like a ‘live’ Rolls-Royce manufacturing operation with several machines running 24/7. We’ve always intended that the vanes will be manufactured using conventional casting once the Trent XWB-97 engine goes into production. But this project has proved that the quality of ALM is just as good as conventional casting methods so I’m sure we’ll be using ALM for live production of other components in the future.


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