In July, Avio Aero’s second additive manufacturing plant officially commenced 3D printing parts for the new Catalyst engine for the Cessna Denali light aircraft.
The new facility in Brindisi, Italy, which specializes in the production of additive parts by using laser beams to melt metal powder (technically known as Direct Metal Laser Melting, or DMLM), was inaugurated in December 2018. Many Brindisi-based employees attended the ribbon cutting ceremony following six months of structural work that completely transformed the old industrial building into a futuristic factory.
The Catalyst, which is scheduled to make its first flight by the end of 2019, will be the first turboprop engine in the world to have nearly 30 percent of its internal metal parts 3D printed. Up to 10 of these components will be produced in Brindisi, though that number may grow as the facility adds more DMLM machines from Concept Laser.
The team of 12 operators, production engineers, process material experts and “designers for additive” at Avio’s new facility, led by Additive Manufacturing Leader Dario Mantegazza, also expects to grow as production ramps up. “The number of people on our team will double,” says Mantegazza, “and when we’ll be at full capacity, we expect volumes to exceed 300 engines per year.”
Mantegazza learned about Electron Beam Melting (EBM), another strain of additive technology, at Avio’s Cameri plant, in Novara, where the turbine blades for the GE9X, the world’s largest commercial engine, are produced.
“When I was at Cameri, we facilitated the introduction of EBM technology to GE, as well as learning and coaching for industrialization,” he says. “For the last couple of years, we have also been learning how to optimize and industrialize DMLM technology. Now we are finally ready to apply it in production for the first products.”
The technological and operational interchange that Mantegazza references is at the heart of the collaboration between the teams in Italy and those at the Additive Technology Center (ATC), an ultra-modern plant established in 2015 near GE Aviation’s world headquarters in Evendale, Ohio.
The ATC is dedicated entirely to the technology that has disrupted the traditional paradigms of industrial production, not to mention mechanical design. Approximately 85 percent of the products processed at the ATC are destined for the aviation market. “We are currently working on products for about 10 military and civil aircraft programs, including the newest and most advanced ones, such as the LEAP, GE9X and of course GE Catalyst. In addition to production, Digital IT, R&D and Engineering teams work here, too,” says ATC Plant Leader Antroine Townes.
At the ATC, additive manufacturing processes are developed using both DMLM and EBM technology for internal customers (such as GE’s global businesses) as well as for external customers. At the same time, the potential of the new technology is explored in terms of applications, materials and digital capabilities (additive machines are digital from the start, ready to generate, process and transmit data). Visiting the ATC is like taking a 10-year leap forward in the industrial time-space continuum.
Townes first met Mantegazza when his Italian colleague visited the ATC at the beginning of 2018. “We began working together about two years ago and will continue to do so for about five years in all,” says Townes. “It is absolutely to our mutual benefit. We exchange knowledge and nurture our trust in each other. Our work on the Catalyst program is to transfer the production of all additive parts from Ohio to Brindisi. We started with the smaller ones and we will eventually get to the bigger ones. At that point, Brindisi will be self-reliant and dedicated to Catalyst. Then we will continue to deal with other aircraft engines that already have additive parts and those that will have them in the future.”
Today, in Brindisi, there are already three DMLM machines in operation, along with two machines dedicated to post-processing—that is, finishing and cleaning the excess metal powder, which is usually reused. By the end of this year, this machine fleet will double and, between 2022 and 2023, Brindisi will reach full capacity with another 15 DMLM machines in operation.
“ATC is a key partner, a great Lean Lab,” says Mantegazza. “During this transfer process we collaborate daily with Antroine and our American colleagues. This is the only way we can guarantee the full maturity of the products that enter production in Brindisi. Furthermore, in Avio Aero, we can also rely on the industrial optimization and development activities performed within our laboratories that have partnered with universities—just like they do, for instance, at TAL.”
Sandra Babylon, the Transition Leader in Brindisi, plays a key role in the exchange of knowledge between Italy and the U.S. “The engine program in question is brand new,” says Babylon, whose job is to ensure that the transition proceeds in the right direction and that the production processes, quality and shapes fit perfectly. “There are numerous challenges and the technological content is highly complex because no one has ever ventured into this industrial enterprise before.”
“From the very beginning, everyone I worked with at Avio Aero seemed to be highly motivated, eager to fully integrate technology and products,” she adds. “The Cameri experience is certainly useful, but at this level of innovation, the solutions to problems, and therefore the opportunities to learn, are continuous.”
The additive revolution is not just technological, industrial and geometric; it also has a significant influence on how work is performed. Workers’ skill sets continually evolve. Learning opportunities blooming inside such a modern environment result in a shop floor where roles like materials expert engineers, manufacturing engineers, laboratory technicians and machine operators achieve a kind of synergistic cooperation.
“Awareness of the capabilities that additive offers is growing continuously,” says Mantegazza. “Operators are also maintenance personnel with enhanced digital programming skills. The synergy in factory management is also greatly improved and the team intertwines its individual skills. EBM and DMLM are not competing technologies; on the contrary, each has its own unique advantages. And the beauty of it is that we have not discovered them all yet.”