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An Engineer’s Dream: GE Unveils A Huge 3D Printer For Metals

When Mohammad Ehteshami talks about 3D printing, he often mentions his “epiphany of disruption,” the moment he realized that additive manufacturing will upend how companies design and make things. “I remember that day like today,” Ehteshami said. “I was excited but also disturbed. I knew that we found a solution, but I also saw that this technology could eliminate what we’ve done for years and years and put a lot of pressure on our financial model.”

That was almost a decade ago. Today, Ehteshami runs GE Additive, a new GE business that builds and sells 3D printers, metal powders and consulting services. His team is now disrupting this new industry itself.

Ehteshami and his colleagues arrived at formnext — the world’s largest trade fair for additive manufacturers, which starts today in Frankfurt, Germany — with a beta version of the world’s largest 3D printer for metals, which uses a laser and a powder bed to make parts. It is capable of printing parts as large as 1 meter in diameter directly from a computer file by fusing together thin layers of metal powder with a 1-kilowatt laser. The machine has the potential to build even bigger parts, due to the nature of the scalable technology. Customers are already requesting machines with build volumes of more than 1 meter cubed, GE said.

GE announced the development effort — called Project ATLAS, for Additive Technology Large Area System — at the Paris Air Show last summer. “The machine can 3D print aviation parts suitable for making jet engine structural components and parts for single-aisle aircraft,” Ehteshami told GE Reports.

Ehteshami said his team already used the beta machine to print a jet engine combustor liner. “It’s sized for the CFM LEAP engine and the resolution and features of the part are amazing,” he said. “It can also be applicable for manufacturers in the automotive, power and space industries.”

Top and above: GE arrived at formnext — the world’s largest trade fair for additive manufacturers taking place in Frankfurt, Germany — with a beta version of the world’s largest 3D printer for metals, which uses a laser and a powder bed to make parts. Image credit: GE Additive. Above: GE’s Ehteshami unveiled the beta version of Project ATLAS at formnext on Tuesday morning. Image credit: GE Additive.

To build the yet-unnamed machine, GE is drawing on expertise from Concept Laser, a German maker of 3D printers for metals in which the company acquired a 75 percent stake in 2016. GE says that the new printer’s architecture and technology will allow users to save powder and costs while maintaining precision and quality.

The company says it will use proprietary technology to control powder dosing, reducing powder consumption by 69 percent compared to traditional machines “on its first attempt.” The machine will also print faster than today’s machines. GE can configure the design and allows customers to add more lasers.

The new printer will also take advantage of Predix, GE’s software platform for the industrial internet, to monitor the printing process and also the health of the machine. Concept Laser’s new M2 printers already come with data analytics using Predix to monitor machine utilization and production and look for potential problems before they occur.

Several GE businesses are already using additive manufacturing to make and develop new products. GE Aviation is printing fuel nozzles for the LEAP family of jet engines. The company is also building the Advanced Turboprop, the first commercial aircraft engine in history with a large portion of components made by additive manufacturing methods, which include 3D printing. The designers reduced 855 separate parts down to just 12. As a result, more than a third of the engine is 3D printed. GE Healthcare, GE Power and the oil- and gas-field services company Baker Hughes are also using the technology.

Says Ehteshami: “This is an engineer’s dream.”

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