When passengers on the short, regular Malindo Air flight 803 from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Singapore took off into the cloudy skies on May 22, they may have admired the new cabin of their plane. But were likely unaware of their bit parts in a historic flight.
The morning jaunt was the first regular flight of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, an aircraft that represents a technological leap forward for commercial aviation. Powering the plane through the cloud deck to a maximum cruising speed were two CFM International LEAP-1B engines.
The LEAP engines are the first to be built with 3D-printed fuel nozzles, a big step for additive manufacturing that demonstrates how mature the technology has become. Nozzles made this way can be manufactured in a single, complex piece instead of needing assembly. This makes them much more durable and lighter, helping to improve the aircraft’s fuel burn.
“These new aircraft offer lower operating costs with better fuel efficiency due to its new LEAP-1B engines, and aerodynamic improvements will allow us to go to farther destinations,” said Chandran Rama Muthy, the CEO of Malindo Air, a carrier that has grown rapidly since launching in 2013. The airline has ordered eight of the 737 MAXs so far.
LEAP-1B engines also include a component called a shroud that was made for the first time with a lightweight, tough, heat-resistant material called ceramic matrix composite (CMC). Shrouds line the hottest area of the turbine to help them work more efficiently and, when made of CMC, can operate at 2,400 degrees F. That’s up to 400 degrees F higher than the metal alloys they’re replacing can operate.
The fan blades and case are made from a woven carbon fiber composite, an extremely strong and light material that decreases the engine’s total weight by 500 pounds over previous materials. That means even less fuel burn.
The engines also contain over 140 sensors. These allow engineers to gather operations data and run analytics to predict potential maintenance requirements and keep the engine flying as much as possible.
Engineers with CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines, have been developing these new technologies for decades. The LEAP engine itself has been working since 2008. CFM has received orders for LEAP 12,230 engines, which also power other planes in addition to the 737 MAX, valued at more than $170 billion at list price.
Decreasing the engines’ weight and improving their performance is translating to lower costs for carriers and customers along with lower environmental impact. Altogether, the LEAP-1B engines are providing 15 percent lower fuel consumption compared with the CFM56-7B engines operating on today’s global 737 fleet. CFM says this leads to “dramatic reductions” in engine noise and emissions of CO2 and other exhaust gasses. Such improvements have spurred sales that already make the LEAP-1B the bestselling jet engine in history. The engines also have helped the 737 MAX to become the fastest-selling aircraft in Boeing’s history, with 3,700 orders already booked from 87 international customers.