Joris Peels at VoxelFab recently conducted an interview with the manager of the GE Additive Manufacturing Lab at GE Global Research, Prabhjot Singh. The interview, complete with Joris-style analysis, goes a bit into the past, present, and future states of 3D printing at the mega corporation. If you don’t have time for the whole piece, here’s a brief recap of the topics covered:
- GE’s been utilizing 3D printing for quite awhile now, including the use of their proprietary laser cladding technology, which can print directly onto objects, mainly for repairs.
- While additive manufacturing at GE is mostly practiced for research, they plan to use the technology increasingly as a method of production. The aerospace division is the furthest towards reaching this goal with the LEAP jet engine, as covered by 3DPI, that “will have a total of 16 3D printed fuel nozzles in it and be used on the Airbus A320 NEO, 737 Max and COMAC C919”.
- Singh wishes to see the following advancements in GE’s AM Lab: “closed loop control, published databases of materials and material characteristics, systems to inspect parts, significant improvements to post processing, an expansion and improvement to the design tools used for 3D printing and cobalt chrome, iconel and other materials optimized for aerospace applications.” If you read this article, you’ll understand that the lack of closed loop control causes quality management of printed parts to take up to 30% of the manufacturing time. It’s actually a big issue in 3D printing as a whole because, without closed loop control, 3D printers can’t self-correct and it’s difficult to achieve reliability and reproducibility. If an item gets messed up during a print, it just comes out messed up and you have to print it again.
- The future of GE may include 3D printing ceramics, piezoelectrics, piezoceramics, resistors, inductors, and capacitors. If you’re like me and didn’t know what piezoelectricity was, here’s the definition from Wikipedia: “piezoelectricity is the electric charge that accumulates in certain solid materials (notably crystals, certain ceramics, and biological matter such as bone, DNA and various proteins) in response to applied mechanical stress.” The most common example is the piezoelectric crystal found in lighters. It’s what allows for that little spark of electricity that ignites the flame when you press down the button onto that long grill lighter you use for starting your BBQ.
- The benefits Singh sees with 3D printing at GE is that it streamlines the entire production process and allows for complex shapes that can’t be manufactured by traditional means, saying that his designers “‘are spoiled..with [being able to make] hundreds of designs’ and that they ‘change designs weekly.’”
Finally, Joris leaves us with some great food for thought about the implications of GE’s 3D printing development for the industry as a whole:
It is in manufacturing where 3D printing can make the greatest impact…GE is a company that always wants to win and go faster. It is also serious about making the least amount of mistakes, so serious that they have whole dojos of black belts walking around trying to make everything with the best Six Sigma rating. It also tends to make products where mistakes in manufacturing lead to huge costs on the part of their customers. If a train, aircraft engine, power turbine or MRI scanner fails the possible human cost as well as the cost in lost revenue to the customer is considerable…By using 3D printing in next generation aircraft engines it is taking a risk on using a new manufacturing process in a new critical product. In order to mitigate this risk they will have to do a lot of heavy lifting and optimize the processes, materials, software toolchain and overall manufacturing of 3D printed parts. Given their reach and what is at stake they will have the resources to do this. This will bring benefits to 3D printing and will improve the application of the technology significantly. And since GE is so huge and followed so closely there will be spillover effects to many other companies if GE is successful. I hope they will be! I first thought that GE was only trying to sprinkle some 3D printing excitement sauce over their stock price but now I’m beginning to believe that they are serious about 3D printing in a big way. This makes me hopeful for a day when there may not be a 3D printer on every desktop but there may be one in every factory.
If you’re not satisfied with my cheat sheet version of the interview, you can always mosey your way over to Joris’s site, where you’ll find his other insights into the 3D printing industry.