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GE takes 3-D metal printing to new heights

With a commitment to 3-D metal printing, GE is changing the way it thinks about machine parts.

At General Electric Co., 3-D printing isn't some pie-in-the-sky technology that has yet to pay major dividends; it's an area of strategic importance today, and it's on the verge of getting a lot more important.

That's because GE, which claims to use 3-D metal printing in the manufacturing of parts more than any other company in the world, will begin shipping aircraft engines with a fuel nozzle manufactured using 3-D printers in 2016.

That's right: In two years, you may very well be flying on a plane with a mechanical part that was printed. It's a jarring thought, one that holds enormous promise not only for GE, but also for aerospace and defense manufacturing in general. In fact, in a recent report on 3-D printing's impact, Gartner included both on a shortlist of industries it expects the technology to revolutionize in the coming years.

3D printing at GE

GE's use of 3-D printing results in a highly compressed manufacturing process. There's no tooling, no wasted materials and a much-reduced time requirement. Small and medium-sized parts can be built in a fraction of the time required in traditional manufacturing processes -- sometimes within hours.

Once started, the 3-D printer can build, unattended, 24 hours a day. The resulting parts tend to be lighter than traditionally forged parts, as the 3-D printing process often enables a part to be built with much less material without sacrificing strength or functionality.

Additionally, because 3-D printers build components layer by layer, internal features and passages that otherwise could not be cast or machined can be designed into parts. And the technology also simplifies complex or multi-component parts.

GE considers much of the additive manufacturing process to be intellectual property, but here's what they were willing to share about how the 3-D-printed fuel nozzle is built:

- A computer-aided design model is generated and processed through a computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) system.

- A machine operator loads the CAM data or model into the computer connected to the direct metal laser melting machine.

- The manufacturing process begins by melting, or welding, a first layer of 20-micron powder onto a steel platform. The platform then lowers by 20 microns.

- A fresh layer of powder is swept over the previously formed layer, and the next layer is welded on top of the previously built layer.

- A powerful fiber laser is precisely controlled at the X and Y coordinates, allowing for exceptional tolerances to be held and extremely small sizes to be built.

Aerospace and defense manufacturers, both of which have a long history of experimenting with the technology, figure to be big contributors to that growth. GE's 3-D printing roots stretch back more than 20 years, when researchers at the company began experimenting with the earliest iterations of 3-D printers to repair components.

3-D metal printing of complex parts

In recent years, GE has been much more focused on using the technology to speed up design via the increasingly widespread practice known as "rapid prototyping," said Prabhjot Singh, manager of the Additive Manufacturing Lab at GE Global Research. For instance, Singh says GE's appliances business designs and manufactures as many as 20 parts each year using 3-D printing to create prototypes much more quickly and cost effectively than can be done through traditional methods.

But now, GE is preparing to make the leap into printing complex machinery, and it chose the aforementioned engine fuel nozzle for specific reasons: It's a complicated component that consists of 18 different parts, making it expensive to manufacture traditionally; it's relatively heavy, dragging down fuel efficiency; and it doesn't rotate, eliminating the need to contend with powerful g-forces.

Naturally, advances in technology have helped make the transition to printing parts more than a dream. Over the last 10 years, Singh noted that GE has been working extensively with "direct laser metal sintering," or DLMS, a 3-D printing technology that has evolved as lasers have grown more reliable and computing power has advanced to allow the complex geometric computations that are required. GE's commitment to 3-D printing is such that it's scooped up a handful of small additive manufacturing specialists, including its acquisition last year of Morris Technologies and Rapid Quality Technologies.

Singh said the new 3-D-printed nozzle will be included in the CFM LEAP, which will power next-generation Boeing 737s and Airbus 320s, as well as Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China's C919 airliner. GE has committed to producing 100,000 of the nozzles by 2020 to support orders for those aircraft.

"The market has never seen those kinds of numbers for metal 3-D printing," Singh added.

It also has probably never seen the redesign of a single part deliver so much potential bottom-line impact. Singh estimates that in making a part like the fuel nozzle, as much as 70% of the materials purchased to make it are discarded during production -- a measurement known as the "buy-to-fly ratio" -- whereas 3-D-printed items use just about all of the materials.

3-D printing changing manufacturing

Pete Basiliere, a research director at Gartner and one of the co-authors of the firm's recent report, doesn't need specific metrics to know that 3-D printing will have a transformative effect on GE and manufacturing at large.

"You don't have tracking of all those components, and you don't have quality questions when you assemble components," said Basiliere. "The real savings over the life of that jet engine are huge."

The savings come in many forms. For instance, in redesigning the fuel nozzle, GE engineers were able to reduce the weight of the component by 25% without sacrificing functionality. And, as Singh pointed out, "weight savings translates to fuel savings for customers."

GE has been able to shed a much larger portion of the weight on another 3-D-printed aircraft engine part, except that this design was obtained through different means. GE last year hosted a 3-D printing challenge in which it asked members of the "maker" community -- a culture of do-it-yourself technology enthusiasts -- to redesign an engine bracket to shed 30% of its weight through 3-D printing. The winning design cut the bracket's weight by 84%.

Singh believes there are limits to what can be accomplished with 3-D printing, but he expects the impact of the technology as a manufacturing methodology to expand considerably.

"While I can't envision a full airplane engine being manufactured this way, I can see many components being made this way," he said.

As for 3-D printing's impact on GE specifically, Singh is confident about what it brings to the company.

"It allows us to move faster and to make products that are game changing," he said.

Follow SearchManufacturingERP on Twitter @ManufacturingTT.

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