A little-known jet engine part made aviation history this week, becoming the first 3D-printed component approved by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to fly inside a commercial jet.
The 3D-printed metallic part houses the jet’s compressor inlet temperature sensor. Soon, according to GE Aviation, the 3D-printed parts will be used to upgrade hundreds of GE90 engines that power Boeing 777s, among the largest, most powerful planes on the planet.
The housing is made from a cobalt-chrome alloy and is designed to protect the temperature sensors’ delicate inner workings from ice and damaging airflows within the engine.
The part went from concept to reality much quicker than most jet engine parts are usually produced, says Bill Millhaem, general manager for the GE90 and GE9X engine programs at GE Aviation.
“The 3D printer allowed us to rapidly prototype the part, find the best design and move it quickly to production,” Millhaem tells GE Reports. “We could never do this using the traditional casting process, which is how the housing is typically made.”
This isn’t GE’s first foray into 3D printing for the aviation industry. The company’s Leap engine (still in development) will feature 3D-printed fuel nozzles that have five times the strength and lifespan of traditional nozzles.
Demand for 3D-printed parts is keeping GE busy. It has received 700 orders for the GE9X engine, and the company’s aviation division has a backlog of more than $135 billion for both equipment and services requests.
To keep up with growing demand, GE’s aviation division plans to invest an additional $3.5 billion into 3D printing and produce at least 100,000 3D-printed parts over the next five years.