Auburn at Epicenter of Next Industrial Revolution

3D printing — the process of making three-dimensional solid objects from a digital file — has moved far beyond the sci-fi and hobbyist markets to take large-scale industry by storm.

Welcome to the next Industrial Revolution.

After several years in development, General Electric has transferred its jet engine fuel nozzle prototype from the lab to its plant in Auburn, where it’s ready for production in the first-ever factory to mass-produce 3D-printed jet fuel nozzles.

“Our success story has been great, ” says Plant Manager Joseph Markiewicz. “We have 9, 000 on order, and production in Auburn will begin by the end of the year and will reach 30, 000 annually by 2019.”

Highly skilled workers will fabricate the nozzles on 10 printing machines at the Auburn plant, and as many as 50 printing machines could be installed as production increases.  

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The nozzle is a vital component in GE’s CFM LEAP engine, which is slated to be in service in 2016 and used on several passenger jets, including Airbus A320 NEO, Boeing 737-MAX and the Chinese-produced COMAC C919. 

Each LEAP engine will contain 19 metal 3D-printed fuel nozzles, which must tolerate extreme temperatures up to 2, 400F. The top-selling LEAP jet engine is being developed by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and Snecma, a division of the French firm Safran.

GE’s new fuel injection system for a jet engine first emerged from an industrial 3D metal printer, and the jet fuel nozzle has been in development for several years. The project is a partnership between GE and Morris Technologies, a Cincinnati-area company acquired by GE about four years ago. 

3D printing is transforming the way engines are built by delivering increased efficiency and new ways to create designs not possible using traditional methods. 

Also known as additive manufacturing, 3D printing can create the units in one metal piece through a successive layering of materials. Engine parts are “grown” directly from a CAD file using layers of fine metal powder and a laser. The process creates the layered cross-sections using a laser beam to melt the raw material. 

Superior parts are created that are lighter than traditional forged parts, because they don’t require such extensive welding. Weight is often a deciding factor in choosing materials and manufacturing processes for aerospace and defense components. The 3D process also takes less time than traditional methods. Additive manufacturing also produces little waste, since it generates less scrap material during the fabrication process.  

As Markiewicz points out, the traditional methods had many limitations, and additive manufacturing has helped to remove those constraints. 

“We’re now growing the product from the ground up, ” adds Markiewicz, and the benefits of using 3D printing over traditional methods go on and on. 

3D printed jet fuel nozzles created from CAD drawings with a laser beam melting metal powders into precision products.

Photo courtesy of GE


The new 3D-printed nozzle is 25 percent lighter and five times more durable than the current nozzle, which is formed using castings made from 21 separate parts that must be produced, shipped and then assembled. In addition, the 3D printed nozzle system offers a 15 percent reduction in fuel consumption and CO2 emission versus current engines. 

Cincinnati-based GE Aviation, an operating unit of GE and a leading aircraft engine producer, invested $50 million to open the 300, 000-square-foot Auburn plant in early 2013, at the 11-acre Auburn Technology Park West, for the purpose of manufacturing jet engine components. The Auburn facility has grown to about 140 employees, a number that could eventually climb to 300 as orders for the nozzles increase. 

GE has been at the forefront of the 3D printing revolution, using additive manufacturing techniques not only for jet engines but medical devices and small home appliance parts as well. 

Jet fuel injection nozzles are just the beginning at GE Aviation’s Auburn plant.  Markiewicz says there are many other parts currently being evaluated for additive manufacturing in Auburn, but that they cannot be disclosed at this early stage.  

“There’s a big difference in making 100 in a lab setting to making 30, 000 annually at the Auburn production plant, ” explains Markiewicz. “This is the first major, high-volume product from the additive program, but certainly not the last.”

Markiewicz says Auburn is an attractive location for GE Aviation’s first high-volume 3D printing plant. 

“It’s very high skilled manufacturing and Auburn University is a pipeline for engineering talent. And Auburn offers the quality of life necessary for attracting and retaining talent.” 

GE Aviation expects to be manufacturing more than 100, 000 parts using additive manufacturing for the LEAP and other aircraft engines by 2020. 

According to Canalys, a global technology market analysis firm, the worldwide market for 3D printers and associated materials and services will reach $20.2 billion by 2019, representing an expected compound annual growth rate of 44 percent from 2014 to 2019. 

President Barack Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union address, said 3D printing “has the potential to revolutionize the way we make almost everything.”

Andres Carrano, associate professor in Auburn University’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and co-director of the 3D Printed Bio Surfaces Laboratory at Auburn Research Park, says additive manufacturing is undoubtedly the next Industrial Revolution.

“It is very exciting to see the bold steps taken by GE Aviation with its new operation in Auburn to implement the first serial production plans in additive manufacturing in the world.”

He says the ability to make complex and intricate shapes with customized properties allows the aerospace industry to achieve design goals of less weight and fuel economy that were out of reach before.

In order to meet the rigorous conditions needed to ensure safety in air travel, aerospace manufacturers must satisfy a long list of complex requirements for even the simplest parts, writes Brett Lyons in The Bridge, a publication of the National Academy of Engineering. 

Requirements for commercial aircraft parts based on U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations are extensive and detailed. So it has been an arduous journey transitioning the additive manufacturing techniques for jet fuel nozzles from the laboratory to the plant in Auburn. 

 “The ramp-up and production of the CFM LEAP fuel nozzle is the first additive metal part to be produced at high volumes and is a tremendous step forward for not only GE Aviation, but for the entire additive industry, ” says Greg Morris, general manager of additive technologies with GE Aviation in Cincinnati.  

“The fuel nozzle is a highly complex part that sees some of the harshest environments imaginable and it signifies to the world that additive is a production-ready technology, ” Morris adds.  “Without any doubt, the fuel nozzle is but the first of many parts that will be produced via additive manufacturing. And Auburn is at the epicenter of this manufacturing revolution.”

Jessica Armstrong and Robert Fouts are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. She is based in Auburn and he in Montgomery.

Text by Jessica Armstrong • Photo by Robert Fouts

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