General Electric (GE) is experimenting with ‘3D painting’ or ‘cold spray technology’ to repair metal parts. The innovative process involves spraying metal powders at rapid speeds (up to Mach 4) to add material to an existing metal part for repairs. The spraying of material using a jetting process to form structures additively is already renown thanks to the DARPA funded initiatives enacted by Optomec, where circuits are built additively by their patented 3D Aerosol Jet Printing technology.
GE (NYSE:GE), which has entered into the maker-favourite-fray in both 3D printing and crowdfunding (further to the U.S. JOBS Act 3 policy change) this year, has just announced its new process — called “cold spray,” — and caused excitement in non-specialist technology publications because of the nickname terminology — 3D painting. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see that GE is quite probably seeking to utilise word play upon 3D printing here.
Optomec’s analogous Aerosol Jet Printing is an existing digital manufacturing technique for creating miniaturised electronic circuits and components that works with a wide range of functional materials: conductors, semi-conductors, resistors, dielectrics and encapsulation materials are printed on to virtually any surface material. This technology, which could also potentially be referred to as a kind of ‘3D painting,’ has been around for a while now, and, I often speculate, will mean that Optomec will be of significant interest to investors in the future.
GE’s new tech works by spraying metal powders at high velocities to build a part or add material to repair an existing part, which can be seen in the video below:
Anteneh Kebbede, Manager of the Coating and Surface Technologies Lab at the GE Research Centre commented: “In addition to being able to build new parts without welding or machining, what’s particularly exciting about cold spray as an innovative, 3D process is that it affords us the opportunity to restore parts using materials that blend in and mirror the properties of the original part itself. This extends the lifespan of parts by years, or possibly by decades, ultimately providing improved customer value.”
Spray technologies offer benefits of speed, and ‘build area’ size, which, by comparison, are challenging for today’s powder-bed additive manufacturing processes. The cold spray technique has the potential to scale up for larger parts only limited by the size of the area over which metal powders can be applied. GE will likely target applications for repairing industrial and aircraft components such as rotors, blades, shafts and propellers with this process.
GE’s Oil and Gas business alone, which has some 43,000 employees in more than 100 countries supporting customers across the industry — from extraction to transportation to end use — may be an ideal beneficiary of the new cold spray process, as an alternate methodology for the repair or coating of parts involved in oil and gas drilling and turbo machinery. The impact of this as a potential industrial opportunity, and investment opportunity, should not be overlooked.
‘3D painting’ — here I use the term generically to include Optomec’s 3D Aerosol Jet Printing — demonstrates a unique fusion of materials and processes that once again demonstrates the breath of additive ‘3D printing’ technologies and how they are already permeating every aspect of industry, opening up a vast array of new opportunities for technological progress, corporate growth and end user benefit in another bold step for the 3D printing industry.