There is very little doubt that 3D printing will play a significant role in the future of manufacturing in Oklahoma. Many initiatives are well underway and state companies are incorporating additive manufacturing at a growing rate. But despite its success, 3D printing is still very much the new kid on and adolescent technology is still trying to find a niche amongst its older, faster siblings, like CNC machining and injection molding.
This state of affairs has raised many important but as-yet-unanswered questions: Will 3D printing unlock true on-demand manufacturing? Can additive manufacturing alone deliver finished parts? How do we move from metal rapid prototyping to metal additive manufacturing? All of these questions share a common presumption: the future of 3D printing lies in production, whether that means creating finished parts or near net shapes.
But what if 3D printers have a different role to play on the shop floor? What about a role in maintenance, repair and overhaul. In a story for Engineering.com, Ian Wright looks at the idea and the emerging use of 3D technology.
The CFM LEAP engine has become the posterchild for additive manufacturing, and its 3D-printed fuel nozzle is probably one of the most photographed parts ever made. The first engines were delivered to Airbus just a few months ago, which means that companies planning to provide maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) services for these engines are already tooling up.
In a recent interview with Aviation Week, representatives of one such company, Rhinestahl, hinted at the possibility of using 3D-printed tools to maintain the LEAP engines.
“There are some tools where 3D printing is an optional method for manufacturing; I don’t think there are many,” said Dan Hudepohl, CFM56 and CFM LEAP technical program manager. “I’ve seen it on a few drawings where, if you have the capability, you can 3D print them, but you can also manufacture them with molds or however it calls out. They’re starting to incorporate different manufacturing capabilities as things evolve.”
“I’m not sure about the line-maintenance fold, but there have been a handful of tools that have components that have a 3D printing option for the manufacturer,” added engineering support leader Bob Dehner. “The one thing I’ve seen would be more use of aluminum and some plastics. Basically, both GE and [Safran Engine] are trying to make tools as light as possible to reduce the weight for ergonomic considerations.”
Of course, the advantages of 3D printing go beyond making more ergonomic tools. MRO companies can also use the technology to create spare parts on demand, enabling them to respond to emergency situations quickly without having to maintain large inventories of spare parts.