If you’ve ever seen 3D printing video, chances are it was time-lapse footage. The actual process of additive manufacturing can take hours or days, particularly when lasers are melting metal powder layer by layer into an intricate part. The simplest way to speed this up is to use higher-power lasers.
But engineers can’t just turn up the laser dial to 11. That’s because the printing chamber where the metal is melted is a hothouse infused with gasses like argon and nitrogen to eliminate external influences. “If it were just a matter of integrating higher-power lasers, that would be easy,” said Waseem Faidi, who leads the additive research team for machine technology at GE Global Research. “But there’s a lot going on inside the chamber with different gas flows during the printing process that prevents you from doing that. The quality of the part being printed can be impacted.”
As it happens, GE is filled with scientists who study airflows through gas, steam and wind turbines and, especially, jet engines. They try to eke out any performance advantage and efficiency gains by designing parts with special geometries and using devices such as actuators that can redirect airflows. The company calls this cross-pollination of ideas “the GE Store.”
That’s why Faidi has turned for help to Aerodynamics (Aero) and Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) teams at GE’s labs in Niskayuna and Munich to apply their expertise. “The question with 3D metal printers is how can I control gas flows in such a way that allows us to scale up the power of the lasers in the machine beyond what is possible today?” Faidi says. “If we can figure that out, we can significantly improve the printing speed and quality of our machines today.”
The research is part of the company’s efforts to to find new applications for additive manufacturing, a catchall term that includes 3D printing. When GE acquired majority stakes in Concept Laser and Arcam AB last fall, it instantly became one of the top manufacturers of metal 3D printing machines. (Arcam also makes powder for these machines.)
Faidi is also drawing on GE’s long history of laser research. One member of the team, Marshall Jones, recently was inducted into the 2017 National Inventors Hall of Fame class for his work in industrial lasers. “We have a world-class team in laser technology with decades of experience bringing new laser applications in cutting and welding to manufacturing,” he says.
Jones’ breakthrough led to lasers powerful enough to cut through metal. He is now helping GE figure out how to increase laser power inside 3D printers. One of his GE mentors, the late Robert Hall, was a laser pioneer who demonstrated the first semiconductor diode laser. This invention was key to many common laser applications used today, such as price scanners and even your TV remote. “Suffice to say we have a lot of brain power behind figuring out how to get more laser power,” Faidi said.