November 5, 2015, Rolls-Royce made its mark in the history of aviation. A milestone had been completed through the first test flight of the largest 3D-printed aero-engine components. Rolls-Royce had finally welcomed the 3D printing – or additive layer manufacturing (ALM) in their industry and is more than ready for aerospace revolution than ever before.
The head of Rolls-Royce’s centre, Neil Mantle explained the important details.
First, they used an electron or laser beam to melt titanium and complex nickel alloys at 1,400-1,600C. They piled up successive layers 20-100microns thick and each new layer melts as well into the existing surface. They also created the properties of the component at the same time as its shape. It’s the equivalent of casting in the 21st century. The technology is nothing like printing bits of plastic.
The Trent XWB-97 engine that they used consist a world first. The front bearing housing measures 1.5m across and contains 48 titanium aerofoil stators to guide air into the engine 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 is why it is considered as the largest aero engine structures ever to be made with the help of 3D printing technology.
They have made hundreds of these aerofoils, each of the bearing housings for the ground test and first flying development engines for XWB-97consist of 48 each. They visualized and made the project possible with a vision of ‘live’ Rolls-Royce manufacturing operation with several machines running nonstop. They are not talking one-offs.
The main objective was for the vanes to be manufactured with the old system of conventional casting once the Trent XWB-97 engine goes into full production. But this experiment showed that additive layer manufacturing can also serve the benefits provided by conventional casting method and Rolls-Royce is planning to use 3D printing for other future projects and innovations. They have proven that additive layer manufacturing or ALM is one of the major technologies that Rolls-Royce must take advantage of.