The green button has been pressed – airlines are placing orders for turboprop aircraft at top speed. With high velocity, low thrust and the exciting potential of 3D printing, will turboprops make their return to the “hot spot”? In the constant search for efficiency and ways to generate revenue, there are many advantages to this kind of aircraft and more in store as new technologies highlight the possibilities – some of which are already being realised in projects like China’s ‘Belt and Road’ initiatives and the development of emerging aviation markets.

The turboprop profile is definitely on the rise. With a $332 million order for Q400s placed  this week by Ethiopian Airlines, for example, following China’s delivery of 57 MA series aircraft throughout 2017 to New Silk Road regions, and with manufacturers like Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation increasing competitive development in the field, it is fair to say that the turboprop market is experiencing a resurgence of interest.     

The tech:

 GE Aviation recently announced the concept of 3D printed turboprop components; which, along with other innovations, has allowed the GE team to ‘combine 855 separate components into just 12’, leading to savings in weight (over 100 pounds) and in fuel efficiency (up to 20%), and simplifying maintenance needs.

While this is still in development and quite costly, we might in the long run expect to see 3D printing become a more embedded technology option for aircraft operators, enabling spare parts to be produced quickly and (relatively) cheaply and reducing the need for them to be ferried around the world, as well as reducing their operating costs as the lighter equipment leads to savings on fuel.

Beyond spares, the reward will also surface as the 3D printing of high quality alloys allows for the rapid prototyping of intricate engine parts, such as compressor fan blades, during the manufacturing process, thus reducing development times and production costs. As fan blades continue to hit the headlines this week, this might also offer the opportunity to increase safety and reliability by using one manufacturing process to design away the flaws in another.

This focus on technology and innovation allows the simplification of these engines as well as correspondingly simplified control systems, reducing the risk of pilot error.  In combination with 3D printing, this also opens up tremendous opportunities for projects like the Belt & Road, allowing operators in remote areas to print the equipment and parts they might need to keep on flying more efficiently and independently than they otherwise could.

In the constant search for efficiency and ways to generate revenue, there are many advantages to this kind of aircraft and more in store as new technologies highlight the possibilities.

The return:

With benefits in maintenance and lower operating costs this is an increasingly attractive product, and we might expect to see equally increasing interest from operators and financiers in the turboprop market, especially if the latest advancements prove safe and reliable once in service.

With aircraft safety a constant industry and media focus (with recent incidents including the crash of a military C130 transport aircraft this week) the simplified control systems offered by the current developments in turboprop technology might help this aircraft type become more and more appealing for operators and financiers as well as for passengers  Time will tell, but the market is there – Beijing’s recent investment of $8 trillion to bolster the trans-Eurasian infrastructure suggests that demand for aircraft of this flexible and accessible kind is only going to grow.