Australian engineers have unveiled the world’s first 3D-printed jet-engine and pledged to fly a prototype in less than a year.
Developed by a team from Monash University's Centre for Additive Manufacturing in Melbourne, working with global aerospace giants including Boeing, Airbus, Raytheon and Safran, the prototype represents a major breakthrough in manufacturing of aeroplane parts and paves the way for the use of innovative materials and cheaper processes.
"This will allow aerospace companies to compress their development cycles because we are making these prototype engines three or four times faster than normal," said Simon Marriott, chief executive of Amaero Engineering, the private company set up by Monash to commercialise the product.
The researchers are confident they can test-fly the prototype within 12 months and achieve certification for commercial use within the next two or three years.
The breakthrough may become a major turning point for Australia’s manufacturing sector, which is currently struggling with global competition.
The continent has some of the most advanced facilities for 3D printing in the world, including one of only three large-scale 3D metal printers in the world, the other two being in Germany and France. It also owns the largest intellectual property catalogue related to 3D printing technology and is the only place in the world capable of producing material for use in the large-scale metal 3D printers.
"We have personnel that have 10 years of experience on this equipment and that gives us a huge advantage," Marriott told Reuters.
3D printing, allowing manufacturing of standardised objects by layering material into three-dimensional structures based on digital blueprints, could possibly cut production times for components from three months to just six days.
Instead of being created from several individual components welded together, a 3D-printed part is smoothly made in one piece from the start, providing better mechanical properties.
Automotive and aerospace companies are already experimenting with the technique for prototyping and making specialised tools, mouldings and some end-use parts.
"We can very quickly get a final product,” said Ian Smith, Monash University's vice-provost for research, commenting on advantages of 3D printing compared with conventional methods such as melting, moulding and carving.
“So the advantages of this technology are, firstly, for rapid prototyping and making a large number of prototypes quickly, secondly, for being able to make bespoke parts that you wouldn't be able to with classic engineering technologies."
Deteails of the cooperation between Amaero and the aerospace giants are not known. It is expected the contracts will cover building of further large-format printers, at a cost of around A$3.5m (£1.8m) each, that would allow scaling up the production of jet engine components.