The Turboprop Engine You Can Print at Home

by PBJ Staff / Jan 29, 2018

GE 3D Printed Engine

Whilst still in its infancy, 3D printing is already beginning to revolutionize the way we live. This relatively new technology was at first restricted to large, wealthier institutions. But it is slowly becoming affordable to small companies and individuals. With that, a whole new realm of possibilities opens up. And the aviation industry is very interested.

The full use of 3D printers has yet to be explored as people and companies continue to find new ways to make the most of the technology. The process, which can also be called ‘additive manufacturing’, allows users to create or download blueprints. These can be simple or complex. In conjunction with a 3D printer, the designs are then brought to life.

First ever object from a 3D printer

Like all new technology, it took some time to build up an established level of trust in 3D printing. Back in the 1980s, Chuck Hall was the first person to create an object using a 3D printer. He started small. Literally. The 3D Systems employee created a miniature cup which could be used to wash out your eye. Not the most ambitious product, but proof of the system’s potential.

Years later and we now find ourselves in a position where 3D printing is not only increasingly affordable but is making huge leaps towards game-changing productions. One of the most admirable use cases so far is the creation of prosthetic limbs. From false skin for burn victims to facial features for cancer sufferers, there are already plenty of examples of 3D printing proving invaluable in the health sector. It can save money and be just as efficient, if not more, than the existing alternative.

The concept of replacing a timely and costly process with a more efficient one is an idea that would appeal to any industry. Perhaps few more so than the world of aviation, where the replacement of aircraft parts can have a major impact on flight times and profits.

General Electric (GE) recently unveiled its mock-up of an advanced turboprop engine (ATP) which can be created through additive manufacturing. At a recent EAA AirVenture event in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, GE displayed their work on the engine and there was plenty to be admired.

“Revolutionary”

Over 33% of the entire engine can be created using additive manufacturing, leading to a 1,300 shaft horsepower piece of equipment. And it doesn’t skimp on features. The ATP will cater for 3D aerodynamics, integrated digital engine and propeller controls, and variable stator vanes. Gordie Follin, Head of Engineering for the program, is clearly excited.

“It’s revolutionary,” said Follin. “The engine is using state-of-the-art technologies that we have validated in our large commercial engines. We are introducing them for the first time in the turboprop market.”

And where exactly will this ground-breaking engine be used? In the upcoming Cessna Denali, no less. The 10-man business jet has been earmarked as the perfect place to test drive this innovative development in aviation engineering. One can imagine it would be quite the icebreaker when mingling with clients on-board. But it’s more than that, too.

Cessna Denali

The Cessna Denali will be the first plane to use the engine.

Far from being a gimmick for the sake of being a gimmick, the engine has multiple advantages over the more traditional form of creating an advanced turboprop engine. First, there are the obvious cost savings, efficiency and ease of creation at multiple locations. But Gordie Follin also touches on how the perks will benefit passengers too:

“We are enabling Textron to provide a larger and more luxurious cabin with the same range and cruise speed that their customers expect. At the same time, the pilot will be sitting in a simplified, jet-like cockpit.”

Statistically improved performance

So how exactly do GE go about creating this unique turboprop engine? Building on over ten years’ research, the process is a combination of techniques. Direct metal laser melting plays a significant role, for one, and the result is a product which is substantially easier to create than the standard equivalent. In terms of figures, this method of making an engine requires 30% fewer parts. This means less time spent making it, fewer safety checks, and of course a lower manufacturing cost.

Newcomers to 3D printing may well assume that this is a less safe process than the standard tried and tested techniques. It may seem a fair assumption, but the opposite is in fact true. Creating an engine in this way not just reduces but eliminates losses and leakages from joints. How? By doing away with joints altogether.

Dig deeper and the numbers get even more impressive. Compared to standard techniques this 3D printing method provides 15% lower fuel burn and 10% higher cruise power. This is achieved via a lighter and more straightforward engine. The benefits of such a streamlined process really do add up.

Successful test

GE 3D Printed Engine

Stephen Erickson, an ace test engineer at GE, watched the engine spin to life on a bank on large screens, starting a new chapter in aviation history.

The aviation industry is packed with ideas which never come to fruition. But this concept is already proven. In a seminal moment for GE, the engine passed its first test in December.

“This is a pivotal moment,” said General Manager of the Advanced Turboprop program Paul Corkery. “We now have a working engine. We are moving from design and development to the next phase of the program, ending with certification.”

The company wasted little time in building on their recent success. Just days later, GE increased their stake in Arcam AB – a Swedish 3D printing firm which creates electron beam-melting machines – to 95%.

When can we expect to see this radical engine be used in real life? Well, full production is scheduled for 2018. The Cessna Denali that the engine is intended for has been penciled in for late 2019.

In just a couple of years you may no longer need to print your boarding pass. Just your engine.

Pictures courtesy of GE.

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