If you’ve recently traveled overseas on a Boeing 777 plane, it’s quite likely that a pair of massive GE90 jet engines powered your ride. More powerful than the rocket that took the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard, into space, the engines are representative of the complex machines that GE has been producing for more than a century. But they also show how GE is connecting physical products with software and making them better. “Manufacturing is not a fixed process,” says Christine Furstoss, vice president and technical director for manufacturing and materials at GE Global Research.
Furstoss spoke about this convergence of the physical and digital worlds at Singularity University’s Exponential Manufacturing summit in Boston on Wednesday. She said the GE90 engine was the first jet engine in the world with carbon-composite fan blades. The design allowed GE engineers to build a larger, lighter and more efficient machine. In fact, the GE90 is the most powerful jet engine in the world. But when GE started making the blades, the production yield – how many of them actually turned out according to plan – was very low; just 20 percent. “We just didn’t know that carbon-fiber strands could behave in so many different ways,” she said.
Engineers attached sensors to the blades and used the information from them to make design changes, build a virtual manufacturing model and test different scenarios inside a computer. GE calls this approach the digital twin. “It allowed them to quickly see what happened when they changed the parameters,” Furstoss said. As a result, the blade production yield is now more than 95 percent and GE Aviation is on its fourth-generation carbon-fiber blade. The competitors are still using metal.
There are few places where this convergence of matter and software is more pronounced than in additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. GE is already using 3D printing to make fuel nozzles for jet engines and gas turbines, but there are a number of factors engineers are still struggling to figure out. “3D printing is still in a prerevolutionary stage, sort of like the Internet in the early 1990s,” said Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google and Singularity University chairman.
GE estimates that by 2025, more than 20 percent of new products will involve additive processes of some kind. The company has opened two advanced manufacturing centers this spring. It also tapped powerful supercomputers working inside Department of Energy labs to study the microstructure of the tiny pools of molten metal created when the laser beam inside industrial 3D printers hits the powdered metallic material used for printing. “We’ve partnered with industry and allowed companies to run simulations on our machines to help them build better and more efficient products,” said Dona Crawford, who retired as director for computation at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory last month after 15 years.
She said public-private partnerships like the DoE’s HPC4mfg program “allow companies to use modeling and simulation to build better and more efficient products.” Businesses are already using the lab’s 25-petaflop computer — the second most powerful one in the world after China’s Tianhe-2 — to optimize a virtual blast furnace and test biomass nuggets that could one day replace coal in steelmaking.
Crawford was on a panel with Jim Phillips, chairman and CEO of NanoMech, which is developing nanotechnology manufacturing applications for industry. “Nanotechnology is picking up speed at an incredible rate,” he said. Phillips said that coating and lubricants enhanced with engineered nanoparticles could double a machine’s life by “eradicating corrosion and bringing friction near zero.”
Kurzweil believes the true exponential manufacturing breakthrough will happen around 2030, when we marry nanotechnology and 3D printing. “The ultimate revolution will take place when we start printing designs fabricated from individual atoms,” he said. “Exponential growth is always surprising. It’s going to keep happening and it’s going to be delightful.”