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GE aviation executive helping to set a new flight plan

Dec 22, 2016 | 12:00 PM | Frank Haflich

Tags  aerospace, end-users, Boeing, GE, jets, engines, additive, AM Frank Haflich

Greg Morris is leader of additive technologies at GE Aviation, the Cincinnati-based unit of the parent company that's carrying the banner for AM.

Greg Morris’ family business roots in Cincinnati go back to the industrial revolution. Now he’s helping lead General Electric Co. into what many see as a new era—additive manufacturing (AM).

In fact, it’s in his title. Morris, 50, is leader of additive technologies at GE Aviation, the Cincinnati-based unit of the parent company that’s carrying the banner for AM.

“I grew up in a family business, in the steel industry,” Morris recalled to AMM. That business, founded in 1850, was Cincinnati steel service center E.K. Morris & Co.

GE is arguably putting as much—if not more—effort into additive manufacturing as any other global industrial company. This past year marked the entry into service of what’s possibly been the single most-publicized AM aerospace component to date—a cobalt-chrome fuel nozzle insert for GE’s Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion (Leap) engine that powers the Airbus A320neo, the latest version of the Toulouse, France-based plane builder’s single aisle airliner.

The Leap engine is built by CFM International Inc., a joint venture of GE and Snecma, a unit of France’s Safran SA. Each engine, which has also been accepted for the Boeing 737 MAX and the Chinese-built c919—has 19 fuel nozzles with AM-manufactured cobalt-chrome inserts, or tips.

Those inserts can be traced directly to Morris Technologies Inc., the company formed by Greg Morris when he struck out on his own over 22 years ago. At full production, GE Aviation, which has orders for 11,000 Leap engines, expects to be turning out up to 45,000 nozzles per year, with 100,000 produced by 2020, via a 3D-printing method called direct metal laser melting (DMLM). DMLM grows parts directly from a 3D computer drawing by melting together layers of fine metal powder as thin as 20 microns—0.000787-inch, or a fifth the thickness of a human hair—with a high-powered laser.

E.K. Morris & Co. was sold to a regional service center in 1991, and Greg Morris remained with the new owners in outside sales for about three years. Then, looking to strike out on his own along with his brother Wendell and their friend Bill Noack, they discovered rapid prototyping.

“We explored it and ultimately decided that sounded like a new, high-tech business to get involved in,” Morris says. The three partners bought a used SLA 250 stereolithography system from Rock Hill, S. C.-based 3D Systems, acquired Structural Dynamics Research Corp. I-DEAS computer-aided design software, and a few “very expensive” Silicon Graphics Inc. workstations. They opened up shop in Cincinnati in September of 1994.

By the time Morris Technologies Inc. (MTI) and its sister firm, Rapid Quality Manufacturing Inc., were sold to GE in 2012, the industrial giant was very familiar with Greg Morris’ companies.

“He was doing a lot of stuff for us in Cincinnati,” mainly rapid prototyping, a GE Aviation spokesman said.

Cobalt-chrome isn’t an alloy that immediately springs to mind in engine production, but MTI had been using it for hip replacements in its medical business, according to the GE spokesman. When GE engineers began testing this material they “found it incredibly durable,” the spokesman said.

“The cobalt chrome material was not used at all on any traditionally manufactured components,” Morris points out, noting that the pre-AM nozzle inserts were made from materials more common in aerospace engines, such as nickel-based Inconel 625 super alloy and stainless steel.

“This of course made it challenging to work with at first,” Morris says about cobalt-chrome. “But once we had the material properties fully characterized, it became the ‘standard’ material to use for many parts.”

Prior to switching to AM, it was necessary to cast, machine, weld and braze over 20 parts into what today is one component.

Moreover, AM gave GE not only a cost benefit over traditionally-made fuel tips but it also resulted in longer part life and weight reduction—“all because we could form metal exactly as required by design,” Morris says.

GE engineers have claimed the expected life of the fuel system is five times greater with the AM nozzle insert than before, while they’ve also seen a 25-percent weight reduction over the fuel tip’s predecessor.

Morris believes that once GE Aviation incorporates additional AM components in its engines, this will have a “huge” impact on not only overall engine weight but also costs.

“We think we that we can probably take out somewhere between 500 to 1,000 pounds of weight eventually,” per engine, he told an industry gathering in 2013.

He ventured that this could translate into a cumulative “hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars” in savings across all when seen collectively, across all engine platforms.

The Leap nozzle was originally designed by GE and built outside by Cleveland-based Parker Hannifin Corp. GE subsequently formed a joint venture with Parker Hannifin to build the nozzles, with the inserts retained in-house, the spokesman said.

GE Aviation has been manufacturing the nozzle tips in both Cincinnati and its plant in Auburn, Ala., which began making them in 2015. Auburn is due to take over full production in early 2017, the spokesman said.

Production of the Leap engine is expected to climb from about 100 this year to 1,100 in 2018.

Meanwhile, GE is looking ahead to another engine that will mark wholesale adoption of AM on a single platform: The Advanced Turboprop engine (ATP) set to power the Denali private aircraft built by the Wichita, Kan.-based Cessna Aircraft subsidiary of Textron Inc.

GE Aviation says it has reduced 855 “subtractive manufactured” parts to 12 additive titanium and steel components, resulting in these components representing 35 percent of the ATP’s total part count. In 2016 it completed tests on a demonstrator engine designed to validate the ATP’s additive parts, which were built at its additive development center in Cincinnati.

By the end of 2017 GE expects to run its first full test on the ATP, where features will include a 3D-printed titanium compressor. The Denali’s maiden flight is expected in 2018.

GE claims the ATP engine, which will be built at a new plant in the Czech Republic, will burn up to 20 percent less fuel and achieve 10 percent more power than other engines in the same class.

Beyond aerospace, GE is looking to AM as a corporate-wide business where AM revenues will grow from a projected $300 million in 2016 to $1 billion in 2020.

Jeff Immelt, GE’s chairman and chief executive officer, said in 2016 that the parent company intends to launch an “additive-manufacturing business,” offering its products not only within GE but also to outside customers. While this initiative will encompass such markets outside aerospace as energy, medical and automotive, Immelt made it plain that GE Aviation is the parent company’s spearhead in this initiative.

“Aviation is leading the way, moving from components to whole engine platforms produced additively,” he said about the Cincinnati-based engine unit during an investor presentation in September.

GE’s  growth strategy in AM hasn’t been without its detours. In September, it unveiled what was viewed as one of the largest-ever proposed consolidations in AM, announcing it would spend $1.4 billion to acquire two European metal-based firms: Arcam AB of Sweden and Lubeck, Germany-based SLM Solutions Group AG, which together had annual sales of $142 million and employed nearly 550 employees.

Arcam, described by GE as a “leading provider of premium titanium powder,” is also the inventor of an electron beam melting machine for metal-based additive manufacturing.


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