The winners in GE’s latest additive manufacturing contest, Martin Leuterer from EOS, Rob Snoejis from LayerWise and Bernhard Tabernig from PLANSEE, took home $50,000 for helping GE find new ways to produce complex parts with refractory metals. For GE it might have been one of the best investments ever, since the new parts will be used in creating better components for its medical imaging division, which operates in a global market estimated to reach some $35.35 billion by 2019.
From a global leader in just abut anything involving advanced manufacturing, from energy to aerospace, it would seem normal to expect rapid adoption of industrial 3D printing processes and GE is certainly that kind of company. Sometimes, though, it is just the companies who have built such a dominant market position that find the most difficulties in implementing new ways of doing things so GE turned to crowd-sourced innovation. It also did a lot more than that: by setting the contest up as a “quest” (a term online RPG players know very well) it exploited the ever growing “gamification” trend, while opening itself up to a global pool of engineers and 3D printing experts, it fully exploited the “open source” as well as the “collective creativity” trends.
The 3D Printing Production Quest: High Precision and Advanced Materials contest took off in June 2013, together with another open 3D printing contest, or quest, for its aerospace division (which ended in November 2013). Participants were asked to concentrate on refractory metals because they have high densities that allow them to effectively block X-rays without the environmental and health hazards associated with lead. These metals are ideal for X-ray imaging systems as they are used to control the path of the radiation from the source through the patient’s body and their high melting temperature (up to 3,400°C) is ideal for components such as X-ray source tubes.
GE partnered with NineSigma, experts in external innovation resources, on this project. “Through open innovation – said Denys Resnick, vice president of Strategic Programs at NineSigma – we are able to uncover fresh perspectives from experts in new areas, accelerate the pace of innovation and transform industries, faster. This is the beauty of harnessing the power of a global network of connected innovators from across industries.”
Participants representing research teams from academia, start-ups and established businesses from six countries competed in the quest. The three winners came respectively from EOS (the German-based leading metal 3D printer manufacturer), Layerwise (a leading Belgian metal 3D printing service) and PLANSEE SE Innovation Services (a leading Austrian refractory metal component manufacturer).
Each of their specific skills were necessary to meet GE’s steep requirements for the new medical imaging device components: they had to be made from high density, high atomic number metals, which can be difficult to shape, while, at the same time, have complex geometries that had to be rendered with very high precision. Which is precisely why GE wanted to manufacture them through additive processes.
To succeed participants were asked to use the high density, high atomic number metals (such as refractory metals and/or their alloys) to make parts that had a wall thicknesses down to 150 microns, with tolerances of ±15 microns; precisely position walls 1mm apart, with tolerances of ±25 microns; exhibit consistent, parallel walls, with little or no warpage across the entire part; have a high density factor – as close as possible to the density of the bulk material and be able to withstand conditions that exert up to 80g’s of acceleration. To achieve this internally would probably have costed GE millions in R&D; by opening up and gamifying the research it spent little over $150,000 and got it done in a fraction of the time: who is the real winner here?