3D-woven composite materials: the Jacquard loom 2.0
The 3D-woven composite technology designed and developed by Safran enables us to make stronger and lighter parts. This is a major innovation, and plays a key role in improving the performance of the new LEAP commercial airplane engine, which consumes 15% less fuel than its predecessor.
Behind a state-of-the-art technology
My buddies said to me: “Patrick, since you’re going to Lyon for the Festival of Lights, you’ve got to visit the Maison des Canuts, a museum that recounts the life of silk weavers in the 19th century. It’s got one of the most fabulous collections of Jacquard looms, and you can even see one in action.”
Now that fascinated me, because I’m an engineer at the Safran Aéro Composite plant in Commercy (Lorraine region of eastern France). We make the fan blades and case for the new LEAP engine using a 3D-woven composite and the resin transfer molding (RTM) process, carrying on this centuries-old craft of weaving, but with a modern twist.
So before attending the magical light show, I took my son Paul, who’s 12, to visit the museum, in the Croix-Rousse neighborhood. I had already explained to Paul that the Maison des Canuts was one of the few places in the world where you can see a mechanical Jacquard loom in operation. It was invented in 1801 by Joseph-Marie Jacquard, and could be operated by a single worker – an industrial revolution at the time!
Invention, reinvention... innovation
The first model you see in the museum clearly shows its age. The guide explained that one of the main goals of this brilliant inventor, a native of Lyon, was to limit child labor, since children were often called on by parents to work with them under very tough conditions. The Jacquard loom used an early programming system based on perforated cards to create very sophisticated patterns. As the guide told us, “Some historians believe that this model is in fact the ancestor of today’s computers and robots.”
At this point, I whispered to Paul: “You see, it’s like the work I do. We also use the weaving technique to make parts for the new LEAP engine.” With that, my son seemed to take a new interest in me. After a short pause, he asked, “So what did you guys invent?” It’s hard to answer that in just a few words, but I tried.
Safran quite simply applied the principle of this amazing machine that’s in front of your eyes. In a way, this old Jacquard loom is the ancestor of the machine we use today to make composite engine parts using this patented 3D weaving technology, invented by a Safran engineer.
The only manufacturing process of its kind in the world
After describing the technical improvements in these looms over the years, the guide invited us to see a demonstration. The huge loom makes me think of a distant ancestor of the ultra-modern machines at the Commercy plant, which make the fan blades and case for the new-generation LEAP engine out of 3D-woven composite materials. These new parts provide significant weight savings, which means lower fuel consumption and fewer oxides of nitrogen (NOx).
of fibers are required to make a single fan blade
The threads that are constantly interwoven remind me of our own 3D-woven RTM (resin transfer molding) composite manufacturing process, designed in partnership with the American company Albany International, which has over 50 years of experience in industrial weaving. What we see at the museum looks very similar to our own plant, with thousands of fibers woven in a specific pattern to give the part certain qualities so it meets specifications. To make a single fan blade, we need seven kilometers of fibers (about 4-1/2 miles)! While the guide boasts about how fast these old looms can make a fabric with a number of colorful patterns, I can’t help thinking about the time we save in our own process, thanks to automation and digitization. Today, it takes only a couple of days from the original design of the preform to the start of weaving, compared with several months using previous manual methods.
New applications on the horizon
Composite materials represent a sea change in the aerospace industry. Their combination of strength and lightness makes a significant contribution to improving engine efficiency. These 3D-woven RTM composite blades offer considerable weight savings over conventional metal blades – about 500 kilos per airplane (1,100 lb)! The next step will be to expand the use of these materials to aircraft engine parts subject to greater mechanical or thermal stress, such as compressors.
Back in the museum gift shop, I ask my son,
Hey Paul, how would you like to visit my factory and see how we do things?