"Additive manufacturing is the Netflix of manufacturing," said David Joyce, Vice Chairman of GE and President and CEO of GE Aviation recently. And it might have been the Avio Aero plant in Cameri, that inspired his choice of words. That is because, Cameri has been making a name for itself recently, following an expansion plan that has increased its production capacity.
The plan has been accompanied - in lockstep - by Arcam EBM, a division of GE Additive whose electron beam machines having been manufacturing airplane engine parts at the Novara plant since it was established in 2013. "A few weeks ago, we increased the production area by 600 sqm, and we now currently host 35 Arcam machines in total," says Vincenzo Trovato, Manufacturing Leader at Avio Aero Cameri.
Of these, there are 31 Arcam A2X machines. The other four machines are the new Arcam EBM Spectra H. "There will be at least another 16 Spectra H machines and in the long run, and we may eventually replace the entire machine fleet of the previous model with this new one," continues Trovato.
The A2X machines heat and melt layer by layer metal powder together, producing TiAl (titanium aluminum) blades for assembly on the low-pressure turbine of the new large GE9X engine, which flew for the first time one year ago. Everything starts with the technical drawing of the blades, and once it is sent to the A2X machine, it produces 6 blades per batch in about three days. Arcam's new Spectra H machine can produce up to 10, in around the same time.
"Thanks to the expansion and these new machines, with greater mechanical and electronic stability, we will definitely be able to produce a larger number of blades"
Additively manufactured TiAl blades are half the weight of traditional nickel alloy turbine blades. For the GE9X engine, this means a fuel consumption reduction of 10% (and therefore emissions), compared to its predecessor, the GE90. The GE9X, which boasts about 200 kg less weight, is expected to enter service in 2020. And, it is estimated that about 60 thousand blades will be produced between 2022 and 2023.
"Thanks to the expansion and these new machines, we will definitely be able to produce a larger number of blades. We can also count on greater mechanical and electronic stability, and we can even consider new geometries," explains Marco Bozzola, EBM Operator at Avio Aero, who has been working at Cameri since 2016.
Bozzola has experience with both the A2X and the new Spectra H machines and works closely with Arcam’s team of engineers. "The Arcam team contributes to Avio Aero's production performance reporting and meets regularly with our teams," adds Bozzola.
Arcam has followed the evolution and growth of the technology and capacity of the Novara plant since the very beginning. "During my first visit in 2011, I remember that there were six machines in Cameri," says David Trinh, Program Director at Arcam who has complete responsibility for the customer relationship with Avio Aero.
"If we consider that today there are more than 30 machines there and that the number of Spectra H machines will increase, then it is clear that we are dealing with a modern, highly effective manufacturing plant." Indeed, from April this year, and for the very first time since its opening, continuous production cycles will begin in Cameri.
There are six to eight dedicated expert technicians from Arcam based at the Cameri plant working directly with Avio Aero’s team to support and service the EBM machines. The Arcam team onsite in Italy is supported by an extended team of ten others, solely supporting Avio Aero, at Arcam's headquarters just outside Gothenburg, Sweden.
“The Arcam team are mostly service engineers and work with us on both the development and improvement of the A2X and of course on the Spectra H" explains Vincenzo Trovato, who knows has known Trinh for many years. "However, the development of processes on the Spectra H is shared with the multidisciplinary Avio Aero team. We also work alongside colleagues in various functions from the Rivalta and Pomigliano sites,” adds Trovato
Among the functions involved, the Digital Technology team stands out. "These new hyper-technological machines would not exist without software or connectivity. So, starting from their initial installation, they must be configured to develop the enormous digital capacity they possess,” says Danila Marco, Digital Technology Additive Leader.
Just to give an idea, the installation of the new Spectra H machines in less than three weeks by the team was commendable, also because the "software" subject is paramount for additive manufacturing machines.
"On the one hand, processes can be automated, impressive amounts of data collected, the machine's interconnection is an advantage, and data can be correlated to gain time, quality and method advantages, as well as for exchange with other tools or software. On the other hand, software and data have an extremely high impact on the final product," continues Marco.
Additive machines are born intelligent and like every brain they must be educated and supplied with information. They must be trained to use this information; to collect, select, transmit, calculate it and extract it. This teamwork between Avio Aero and Arcam aims to enhance the digital capabilities of the machines, which are already revolutionary in terms of technology. It aims to make them capable of even more efficient and reliable production processes.
The initial developments of this digital enhancement should be seen later this year, when the machines will work in a more integrated manner with other tools. At that time, they will begin to fill the so-called data lake with a multitude of data about their own operational performance.
"We will continuously cooperate on the data collection yet at Cameri plant. This, along with machine learning, are two areas that quickly will lead us to something really exciting!" concludes Trinh.