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Before These Parts Are Fit To Print: This Virtual Factory Software Takes 3D Printing Inside The Computer

You probably wouldn’t print a letter without carefully composing and editing it on a computer screen first. So it’s fitting that as companies embrace 3D printing, their workers are spending a lot of time on their computers making sure the parts they want to print come out right. And just like writers need a good word processor to keep track of their changes, industrial designers need sophisticated software to run simulations as they perfect their parts.

Few people know more about these emerging digital tools than Laurent D’Alvise and Michel Delanaye, the men behind Virfac, a software system that allows engineers to simulate what-if scenarios and gives them ways to estimate costs, cut expenses and plan time to market.  Physical experiments can take time and money, D’Alvise says, “but with a simulation, you can do that comfortably with your laptop.”

It turns out that Virfac works especially well when applied to complex production processes like 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. Engineers use it to check for possible deformations in parts printed from plastic and metal and destined, say, for a passenger plane.

GE, which prints parts for jet engines, gas turbines, medical scanners and other technology, was so smitten with Virfac that it acquired the software and its parent GeonX, the Belgium-based company D’Alvise and Delanaye founded, in November 2017. GE had launched its additive business just one year earlier, and the company is well into manufacturing’s evolution away from the assembly line and toward highly customized parts that were previously too expensive or complex to make. Technologies like 3D printing have also allowed engineers to produce physical prototypes much faster and for less money than ever.

But one disruption begets another. Now, simulation tools like GeonX software can take much of the expensive and time-consuming physical work out of prototyping. The software gives engineers a way to calculate a vast array of parameters to arrive at the best possible design before they ever press the print button.

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Posted by GE on Monday, February 12, 2018

Top image: Technologies like 3D printing have allowed engineers to produce physical prototypes much faster and for less money than ever. GIF credit: GE Additive.

This is especially important in the aerospace industry, where 3D printing has taken on a large role. 3D printing has allowed GE Aviation to combine 855 parts of an aircraft engine into just 12, for example. But as parts become more complex, designers must eliminate material stresses and forces they have rarely seen before. A joint prone to cracking as it cools down or a cumbersome shape can slow down design for days. “You have to re-do your part from scratch,” D’Alvise says. The problem can be solved by simulating not just design but also the printing process. The Virfac software allows users to spot potentially risky areas prone to failure even before the printer goes to work.

Much of the technology GeonX uses is proprietary, but the software runs on powerful “general-purpose computing on graphics processing units.” The design allows the company to embrace “massively parallel” computing that can quickly work through hundreds of thousands of changing parameters like heat and material tension and flag weak spots.

There aren’t many experts in the simulation and scientific software development field like D’Alvise. He holds a PhD in manufacturing and computational methods from Ecole des Mines de Paris in France and completed a postdoctoral stay at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), an engineering school in Switzerland. In the beginning of his career in 1997, he applied numerical modeling and simulation to the geotechnical and mining sectors. He then specialized in aerospace engineering and advanced welding simulation technologies in the U.K. He met Delanaye at the Cenaero research center in Belgium, where they jointly started the development of new software for the advanced simulation of processes in 2004, an effort that would become the starting point for the future GeonX.

D’Alvise and Delanaye founded GeonX in 2012. The idea was to sell and develop software that could act as a crystal ball for manufacturers using traditional methods like welding and machining. After a few years, their clients started bringing up 3D printing in meetings, and D’Alvise brainstormed with Delanaye about moving into the manufacturing sector too. They updated Virfac so that manufacturers could use it replicate a 3D printing process, too, and additive has since become the manufacturing sector with some of the strongest growth, he says.

“The most exciting part is helping the client save money,” D’Alvise says. “You see a direct link between what you do in a simulation, and the concrete aspects of a well-printed part in a short time. They can save a lot of money, accelerate the design phase, and they can accelerate going to market.“

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