Industrial Strength – Revolutionary 3D Printed Metal Designs GE-Style


Lee-Bath Nelson  

GE 3D printed fuel nozzle

Innovative design can be practical yet beautiful and uplifting.  Sometimes it can literally take off. That is the case with some of the parts in the new GE jet engine, LEAP, set to start its commercial flights in 2016 in Airbus and other commercial airplanes. The design process of this engine is also the story of industrial use of 3D printed metal parts as exemplified by GE. If you want more information, metal 3D printing is part of a Master Class coming up during Dutch Design Week, for those planning to attend this event.

3D printing gives designers freedom to design without the limitations imposed by casting and milling techniques. This allows for less parts (less welding and joining) as well as parts with geometries that were previously impossible. An example is the GE Jet fuel nozzle. The old nozzle was made of many parts that required assembly and 25 welds (each one a weakness point) and suffered from coking (accumulation of carbon deposits). Jet engine fuel nozzles spray fuel at temperatures as high as 3000 degrees. Over time coking causes sub optimal fuel spraying which deteriorate the engine’s efficiency and durability. Fuel nozzles are a key component in determining the engine’s fuel consumption and emission levels. This is a key problem for all jet engines and many have tried to mitigate it.

GE decided to tackle this problem through a radical redesign, metal 3D printing (called additive manufacturing in industrial settings), and special materials. Once GE mastered metal 3D printing and a lighter more durable alloy, its designers and engineers were free to reimagine this part with much less components (mostly driven by materials) – less work and more durable than the many assembled components of the old part. The new nozzle has only 5 welds (instead of 25 welds previously) greatly reducing the potential fault/weakness points. The designers added small builtin cooling tubes inside the part to prevent coking and optimized the amount of material used in the part to a minimum using strategically placed supports. The result is a fuel nozzle that is 25% lighter, and up to 5 times more durable. Fuel efficiency was improved 15% and emissions were drastically reduced, by double digits.  A new Alabama plant is gearing up for commercial production of this part.

The redesigned fuel nozzle is below and the video below it explains about the process.

GE fuel nozzle - metal 3d printing additive manufacturing

GE previously redesigned the housing on one of its GE90 engine sensors in order to avoid the housing icing over. The ice on the housing often detached and was sucked into the compressor creating problems. The redesign allowed for different air circulation and solved the icing problem, the resulting design is below. As a bonus, the design and testing process was 1 year shorter than GE’s regular process, thanks to the quick turn around and flexibility with 3D printing. This casing got specific FAA approval and will now be retrofitted in existing GE90 engines.

GE 3D printed sensor housing

Of course, metal 3D printing can be used for many objects, such as jewelry, accessories, and much more. Last week, Tessa’s weekly picks highlighted golden 3D printed objects that included 3D printed gold objects. Tessa will also be giving a talk about 3D printed designs on October 21st, during Dutch Design Week, in a master class that includes sessions on metal additive manufacturing (another name for industrial 3D printing).


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