Alliance in the Skies

DN Staff

March 3, 2015

3 Min Read
Alliance in the Skies

When Pratt & Whitneybegan working with additive manufacturing (AM) in the late 1980s, the future seemed to be in plastics. Today the technology popularly known as 3D printing is more sophisticated, and we are doing things with nickel and titanium. Now, Pratt & Whitney -- and, in fact, the aerospace industry -- is facing the first major production ramp-up since those same 1980s, due to customer demand for our new turbofan engine technology.

So we are looking at AM as a way not just to improve prototyping, which we were doing initially, but for manufacturing certain flight parts on our next-generation product family, in particular the PurePower series of geared turbofan (GTF) engines. These engines will see the first introduction of our production hardware using powder bed AM.


Unprecedented production ramp-up

Today the aerospace industry is facing levels of customer demand that haven't been seen in a generation. We expect to more than double our engine production by 2020, which by some estimates means tooling up to produce one engine per hour. This illustration isn't precise, but it suggests what the increase in demand will mean for aerospace prime contractors and their supply chains.

Like most companies, in order to accelerate our product development we are interested in looking at a variety of feasible production alternatives, including AM, which is appealing because it is fast, efficient, precise, lean, and green. It has the potential to dramatically reduce production time, from design to prototyping to finished product. It decreases waste and consumption of raw materials.

AM allows manufacturing facilities to produce parts with complex geometries using reduced tooling, and the approach permits multiple parts from an assembly to be made in one integrated piece. Moreover, AM shrinks the carbon footprint of the manufacturing process by reducing both the amount of raw material used and the number of subsequent operations. Implementing AM is a necessary part of a globally competitive manufacturing strategy.


As popular as this manufacturing approach has become, it is important to remember some of the lessons we've learned in our years of working with AM.

At this point in the evolution of AM, parts require some post-production work, often involving machining and surface finishing. Pratt & Whitney is most excited about AM as an approach that is complementary to -- not a replacement for -- traditional manufacturing processes, which are better tooled and refined for mass production and surface finishing at this time. The aerospace industry is expected to continue to produce parts using both approaches.

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Aircraft Engine Maker Opens Additive Manufacturing Lab

Moreover, the challenge for AM going forward, as we enter an unprecedented production ramp-up, is capacity. Over the past 25 years we have produced more than 100,000 additively manufactured prototypes, including tooling and development engine hardware. As we invest heavily in our global manufacturing network and prepare for this unprecedented production ramp-up, we are transforming our facilities and training and developing our workforce.

We have already advanced our experience in AM and rapid prototyping techniques with metals, including nickel and titanium used for tooling and rapid hardware builds. Now, we are leveraging in-house AM facilities and several different AM techniques to move from prototyping to making flight parts on the next-generation product family. These techniques include metal injection molding (MIMS), electron beam melting (EBM), and laser powder bed fusion including direct metal laser sintering (DMLS).

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