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Blades and Bones: The Many Faces of 3D Printing

GE started testing its first jet engine that contains 3D printed parts last week. A big step for advanced manufacturing, for sure, but just the beginning of the 3D printing revolution. Like ordinary machining, 3D printing, also called additive manufacturing, spans a wide gamut of technologies for many different applications, from rapid prototyping to producing designs previously impossible to make.

Engineers and designers are not the only ones excited about the technology. A recent Citi Research report noted that GE has been investing for a decade in additive manufacturing and “has developed a strength in high-end metals and ceramics. This has been commercialized in fuel nozzles in aviation but is expected to have many additional applications across GE industrial businesses.” Take a look at these photos:

imageThis lattice cube, which was made from titanium on an electron beam melting machine (EBM), resembles a bone chip. There is a good reason. The “organic” design makes it about one third of the weight of a solid cube while maintaining the solid’s compression strength. This technology could deliver huge material savings and weight reduction. imageThis hand was 3D printed on an Objet Connex500 machine that can use two different resins at the same time. In this example, designers used a hard resin for the bones and a soft one for the flesh. GE is not moving into making body parts, yet, but 3D printing is helping engineers rapidly prototype and test their designs, and speed up parts development. imageThis example of a high-pressure turbine blade was made from a cobalt-chrome alloy on another type of 3D printer, the direct metal laser melting (DMLM) machine. This machine uses lasers to melt layers of metal powder into the final shape. The blade contains intricate cooling channels that would be otherwise difficult to manufacture. It is a good example of the new freedoms enjoyed by designers using additive manufacturing to make metal parts. imageLike the turbine blade, this replica of a fuel nozzle was printed on a DMLM machine from a cobalt-chrome alloy. The method can achieve intricate internal geometries shown on the next slide. imageThis image shows the internal geometries of the fuel nozzle that would be difficult to make using conventional manufacturing methods. A part this complex would normally require the welding together of over 20 different components. An additive manufacturing machine can build it as one piece. imageThis porous titanium sphere was made on an EBM machine. It illustrates the power of the additive technology. Before 3D printing came along, engineers were not able to cast or manufacture such complex shapes.

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