Anyone who has ever seen a 3D printer would be forgiven for believing the boxy futuristic machine is good for one thing only: churning out industrial parts. They would be wrong.
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, allows engineers and designers to print complex metal parts directly from a computer file. This process does indeed provide the perfect process for creating intricate fuel nozzles for the GE9X, the world’s largest jet engine; ribbed gearbox covers for the GE Catalyst, the company’s new turboprop engine; alien-looking fuel heaters honeycombed with vessel-like channels; and many other heavy industrial items.
But increasingly, engineers and designers have been turning to 3D printing for a wide variety of projects, for the red carpet, new parents and elite athletes. Here are a few recent examples of how GE has helped:
What is it? British supermodel Jourdan Dunn charmed the crowd at the Met Gala in May with her blood-red gown in the shape of a rose. The lacquered dress, which looked like freshly poured candy, was a complex construction of folds and velvety swirls. The 21 petals and titanium cage holding them in place were entirely 3D-printed.
Why is it important? A 3D-printed dress at a celebrity event broadcast around the world demonstrates the breadth of this technology’s capabilities. The hope is that by showing how a technology more typically associated with components for jet engines, gas turbines and medical scanners can be used to create something of beauty and whimsy, more innovation will follow. After all, if you can 3D-print an enviable dress, what else can these machines produce for the world?
How was this possible? Designer Zac Posen worked with GE Additive design engineers and Protolabs, which specializes in plastic and metal additive prototypes, to create this rose gown and several other luminescent 3D designs for the Met Gala (including a shimmery purple palm leaf accessory Katie Holmes draped across her shoulders).
What is it? Blind Brazilian parents could not see their son’s image on an ultrasound during pregnancy. Their doctor used a 3D printer to create lifelike models of the baby’s images which were originally captured on a GE ultrasound machine.
Why is it important? The moment when pregnant mom Ana Paula Silveira and her husband, Alvaro Zermiani, were able to touch their fetus helped them experience what many couples go through when they see their budding baby on an ultrasound screen. “Thanks to the exams and printing, we were able to not only know that our baby was growing healthy but also to have a very real contact and establish a very strong involvement with our son,” Silveira said. In addition to offering blind parents a heartfelt moment, the technology also provides a way for doctors to explain to all parents congenital defects such as cleft lips, abnormal extremities or abdominal wall defects. In some cases, 3D printing of ultrasound fetus images can also enhance discussions about surgical planning and serve as an educational tool.
How was this possible? Doctors collected the 3D images on a GE Voluson E10 ultrasound machine. It’s the first ultrasound system in the OB/GYN field with built-in 3D-printing capabilities.
What is it? A British company 3D-prints bespoke surgical implants and “guides” for the veterinary market. These 3D-printed guides act like a kind of stencil for surgeons to follow when operating.
Why is it important? Veterinary surgeons typically have to visually estimate when deciding where to cut or manipulate their patients’ bones. A 3D-printed cutting guide offers them far great precision in surgery to, for instance, reposition a deformed bone.
How was this possible? Dr. Kevin Parsons, a small-animal orthopedic clinician at Langford Veterinary Services in Bristol, England, has been honing this technique for over two years. He takes computed tomography (CT) scans of his patients and sends the scans to CBM Wales, an advanced manufacturing research center that’s part of the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Swansea. This facility, about an hour’s drive away from Parsons’ clinic, also creates a variety of 3D-printed images including aerospace components and human medical devices.
What is it? Gold-winning New Zealand Paralympic athlete now has a prosthetic arm that is, in part, 3D-printed. The new arm was made especially for Anna Grimaldi so she could grip a weightlifting bar, a feat that has eluded the athlete throughout her entire training career.
Why is it important? Grimaldi’s old prosthetic arm was “just an everyday child’s arm attachment, designed to lift a glass of water or a shopping bag,” she said. “It wasn’t designed to lift 50 kilograms off the ground.” Her new 3D-printed titanium arm helps her get a better grip on barbells since it was designed specifically to fit her stump and hold the weight. Bespoke prosthetics that have been 3D-printed will hopefully someday help thousands of people — even non-elite athletes — who struggle to get the right fit.
How was this possible? Zenith Tecnica, an Auckland-based company that specializes in a type of additive manufacturing known as electron beam melting (EBM), used printers built by Arcam EBM, a company that is part of GE Additive. It took the company just two hours to process the CAD file of Grimaldi’s prosthetic arm, translating the computerized blueprints into a layer-by-layer plan for the Arcam printer, and then 10 hours to print it, using titanium powder.