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Rolls-Royce considers using 3D printers to make jet engine parts

The British firm claims it could be cheaper and quicker than conventional manufacturing techniques

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Rolls-Royce is considering using 3D printing technology to create lighter components for its jet engines, the company’s head of technology strategy has said.

Henner Wapenhans said the additive manufacturing technology could also enable the the British manufacturer to create aircraft engine parts more quickly, the Financial Times reported yesterday.

“3D printing opens up new possibilities, new design space,” Dr Wapenhans said. “Through the 3D printing process, you’re not constrained [by] having to get a tool in to create a shape. You can create any shape you like.

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The Rolls-Royce executive said the technology could be used to reduce the weight of parts such as brackets.

“There are studies that show one can create better lightweight structures, because you just take the analogy of what nature does and how bones are built up – they’re not solid material.

“One of the great advantages in the aerospace world is that some of these parts that we make have very long lead times, because of the tooling process that’s got to [happen], and then it takes potentially 18 months to get the first part after placing an order – versus printing it, which could be done quite rapidly.

“Even if it takes a week to print, that’s still a lot faster.”

Wapenhans said that Rolls-Royce is still "a few years away" from using 3D printing to create parts that go into service, adding that the technology is less well suited for manufacturing larger engine parts.

Rolls-Royce is the latest in a string of companies to announce that it is looking at how to utilise 3D printing technology, also known as additive manufacturing. The process involves taking a computer generated design and building it up layer-by-layer with plastics, metals and ceramics. 

Nasa and General Electric have already said they're looking at how to use 3D printing to create everything from lunar bases to fuel nozzles for jet engines. Indeed, GE's intent to capitalise on 3D printing was highlighted last year when it acquired two privately held companies in Cincinnati that specialise in 3D printing. 

Meanwhile, McDonald's revealed last week that its happy meal toys could one day be manufactured by in-store 3D printers

3D printers have started to become more mainstream in recent months, with Maplin introducing the first version to the high street for £699 in July. 

Meanwhile, school pupils will be taught to use the technology under new Government plans to boost standards in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Sales of 3D printers and related services climbed to $2.2 billion (£1.37 billion) last year, and are expected to rise to about $6 billion (£3.7 billion) annually by 2017, according to predictions made by consultancy Wohlers Associates. 


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