For decades, fabric factories on the shores of Italy’s Lake Como kept the fashion houses of Milan resplendent in silk. Today, a new kind of manufacturing in the fashion heartland is spinning up parts for gas turbines that move oil and gas through pipelines and generate electricity.
Equipped with industrial-grade 3D printers and computer-controlled mobile robots, the factory is aspiring to become one of the most advanced industrial plants anywhere in the world. “This is a small place, but it can do some amazing things,” says Davide Marrani, general manufacturing manager for turbomachinery at GE Oil & Gas, the GE business that built it.
The plant, located in the small town of Talamona, uses laser-powered printers called direct metal laser melting (DMLM) machines to make swirlers, small but crucial components of the combustor — the part that burns a mixture of fuel and air and powers the turbine.
A swirler looks like a small wheel, some 4 inches in diameter, with blades on the inside that push the fuel mix into the burner. Though it looks simple, its design is exceedingly complex. Small changes in the shape of the blades can bring large fuel savings, so engineers are constantly optimizing the designs.
In the past, Marrani and his team would make each swirler from three to four externally sourced components and join them together. But the DMLM machine allows them to print the part, in one piece, directly from a CAD file. “With this technology, we can easily change the design by just changing the drawing,” Marrani says. “The process is pretty much immediate.”
That’s because each DMLM machine breaks down a CAD file layer by layer and uses the laser, powerful enough to burn a hole in a wall, to fuse one fine layer of metal powder after another in the right design pattern. There are as many as 1,250 layers per inch — each less than the thickness of a human hair.
But 3D printing isn’t the only manufacturing treasure hiding in Talamona. The other is the plant’s robotic line, which makes turbine parts. Working on a long track, the pair of robots use long yellow arms to move turbine parts between as many as 14 different manufacturing stations. The stations include high-end electric discharge machines that use electric current to produce complex shapes, laser-beam welding and laser inspection.
Marrani says the line allowed his team to cut the production cycle from six to eight weeks — almost two-thirds. GE calls this software-and-data-enabled manufacturing the brilliant factory. “In the past we had a very fragmented supply chain,” Marrani says. “The beauty of this line is that we now make everything under one roof.”
And the new production lines are just getting started. Marrani has plans to add more 3D printers and expand their repertoire. He is leaning for help on GE’s Global Research Centers and the company’s new Center for Additive Technology Advancement, which opened in Pittsburgh in April. “Being able to draw on all this expertise gives us tremendous speed,” he says.