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OM in the News: Alcoa Embraces Additive Manufacturing

December 2, 2014
Alcoa today can 3-D print the dies used to manufacture turbine parts

Alcoa today can 3-D print the dies used to manufacture turbine parts

There’s a great deal of testing that goes into airplane parts to be sure they can handle the temperatures and stresses of aviation. Alcoa would know. The 125 year old metals producer makes parts for gas turbine engines used by Boeing and Airbus. The problem? All that testing takes time. Between tooling, development, and casting, it used to take Alcoa a year to manufacture one of the nickel-alloy parts that go into an engine, where it must withstand temperatures of up to 2,000˚F. Then, writes Fortune (Dec. 1, 2014), the company discovered additive manufacturing—better known as 3-D printing.

In past few years, the company has been using additive manufacturing to create the dies that shape engine parts. With additive manufacturing Alcoa cut the time by 50% and the cost by 25% required to develop the process and manufacture the part. “We’re really at the beginning of what I would call a second Industrial Revolution,” says Alcoa’s CEO. “You go from idea to product in no time. It’s almost like production at your fingertips.”

In the past, Alcoa built a die using a process called subtractive machining. It’s similar to sculpture: Start with a material—in this case, steel—then whittle it down into the shape you need. Ten to 30 weeks later, the company ended up with a custom die that it would then use to cast the needed engine part. Today, Alcoa pairs CAD with 3-D printing to construct the die from a computer file, layer by layer. A process that once took half a year is completed in 2-8 weeks, allowing the company to dramatically increase its output. Alcoa can now handle more parts orders—for commercial aircraft, business jets, regional jets, even helicopters—and ramp up to meet them faster.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why is 3-D printing so important to Alcoa?

2. What is the difference between additive and subtractive manufacturing?

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