The power of 3-D printing is spreading to the industrial world. Last fall, as the world’s largest supplier of jet engines, GE took the first steps towards producing fuel nozzles and other jet parts via additive manufacturing, the industrial version of 3-D printing. A switch from conventional manufacturing methods to additive manufacturing would be a significant change, as General Electric is also the world’s largest manufacturer. So what exactly is additive manufacturing?
The idea behind it is that parts are built by a machine that adds extremely thin layers of metals together, one at a time. The process starts at the drawing board with a three-dimensional design. This design is developed using CAD (computer-aided design) software; it’s then converted to a surface tessellation (STL) file, which essentially means that all of the surfaces in the CAD design are translated to create a model based on triangles.
This design is now split into horizontal slices of varying thicknesses, which are then programmed into a 3-D printer that uses computer-controlled lasers to shoot beams onto a cobalt-chromium powder bed, melting the metal alloy in specific places. This process is repeated layer by layer (each layer is 20um thick) until the manufacturing is complete. (Rapid 3-D Printing)
Additive manufacturing has substantial benefits over conventional manufacturing:
- It’s more efficient and convenient: The machines can run for long periods of time without being monitored, thanks to computer programs.
- It’s cheaper and more flexible: No molds or dyes are needed, so prototypes can be made on demand (this also encourages innovation and new designs).
- It’s less wasteful: Conventional manufacturing of a fuel nozzle, for example, would require welding about 20 small parts together, creating a relatively large amount of waste in the process. With additive manufacturing, the printer can create very specific shapes to eliminate unnecessary bulk and waste. This is key for airplanes because in addition to saving on the cost of materials, the decrease in bulk allows for substantial savings on fuel costs due to a lighter aircraft. (Technology Review)
It is key to note that many essential 3-D printing patents are beginning to expire, which will greatly expedite the rise of 3-D printing this coming year.
General Electric is gearing up to expand the use of additive manufacturing into its other segments as well. GE Power & Water is exploring the ability of 3-D printing to create parts in its large gas and wind turbines, and the GE Healthcare sector has developed a method of printing transducers, which are expensive probes used in ultrasound machines. Switching to a manufacturing method that is faster, cheaper, and much more convenient could have considerable benefits in terms of machine prices and quality. In fact, GE began the switch last fall; stock prices were $18.54 on June 1, and rose to $27.83 by December 27, an increase of over 50%.
Though 3-D printing is clearly expanding into the industrial world, its presence in our everyday lives is increasing as well. Projects that are gaining traction include RepRap, a community-based program that helps people build their own 3-D printers.
As 3-D printers become optimized and more affordable for the masses, manufacturers will have to find a way to keep their prices competitive, likely by switching to additive manufacturing themselves. To put it all in perspective, using a 3-D printer to “print” 20 household items every year can save a family between $300 and $2000.
Today, 3-D printers are available for sale with prices that range from $600 to $3,000 – what would it take for you to make the switch and start printing household items instead of buying them? Answer the poll below!
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