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3D printed parts will shortly fly inside commercial GE jet engines

15 April 2015

The housing for a jet engine compressor inlet temperature sensor recently became the first 3D-printed part certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

The 3D-printed housing for the T25 sensor. Located in the inlet to the high-pressure compressor, the sensor provides pressure and temperature measurements for the engine’s control system (image: GE Aviation)

GE Aviation is currently working with Boeing to retrofit more than 400 GE90-94B jet engines – some of the world’s largest and most powerful - with the 3D printed part. This family of engines powers Boeing’s 777 aircraft.

But the 3D-printed housing won’t be an outlier for long. GE has already started flight tests with the next-generation LEAP jet engine, which features 19 3D-printed fuel nozzles. The engine, which will power new narrow-body planes like the Boeing 737MAX and the Airbus A320neo, was developed by CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran (Snecma). GE is also developing 3D-printed fuel nozzles and other parts for the GE9X engine for Boeing’s new 777X aircraft. The GE9X will be the largest jet engine ever built.

Both of the engines feature new materials like ceramic matrix composites (CMCs) and carbon-fibre fan blades.

Additive manufacturing allows designers to create complex parts like this jet engine combustor, which would be very difficult to make on conventional machines (image: GE Aviation)

The new T25 3D-printed housing, made from a cobalt-chrome alloy, protects the temperature sensor’s delicate electronics from icing and punishing airflows inside the engine. It would normally take GE several years to design and prototype this part, but the GE team was able to shave as much as a year from the process.

“The 3D printer allowed us to rapidly prototype the part, find the best design and move it quickly to production,” says Bill Millhaem, general manager for the GE90 and GE9X engine programmes at GE Aviation. “We got the final design last October, started production, got it FAA certified in February, and will enter service next week. We could never do this using the traditional casting process, which is how the housing is typically made.”

Jonathan Clarke, programme manager for the project, says that the team ended up with a faster and simpler design, and superior material properties. “Once we found a workable solution, it went straight to production,” Clarke says. “This technology is a breakthrough.”

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