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Just a few years ago, 3D printers lived mainly inside labs and on garage desktops where hobbyists used them to produce plastic keepsakes.
Not anymore. Today, companies such as GE are using 3D printing and other additive manufacturing methods—which shape components by adding material together, rather than removing it—to print parts for jets as well as power plants and medical scanners.
This week GE announced plans to acquire two top additive manufacturing companies—Sweden’s Arcam AB and Germany’s SLM Solutions Group—for $1.4 billion. GE plans to expand the use of 3D printers internally and also serve as a key supplier of additive manufacturing technology to the industry.
The acquisitions are structured as public tender offers for all of each company’s outstanding shares of stock and are subject to regulatory approvals.
“Each bring two different, complementary additive technology modalities as individual anchors for a new GE additive equipment business to be plugged into GE’s resources and experience as leading practitioners of additive manufacturing,” said GE Aviation President and CEO David Joyce about Arcam and SLM. “Over time, we plan to extend the line of additive manufacturing equipment and products,” he said.
The machines that SLM makes use one or more laser beams to fuse up to 1,250 layers of fine powder per inch into a desired shape. Arcam technology replaces lasers with electron beams, which allow it to print parts from tough but hard-to-handle materials such as titanium aluminide (TiAl).
Boeing’s next-generation 737 MAX passenger aircraft use LEAP jet engines with 3D printed fuel nozzles inside. Image credit: Adam Senatori/GE Reports Above: A 3D-printed fuel nozzle for the LEAP (the top, round part). Image credit GE Aviation.
The aviation business is already producing 3D-printed fuel nozzles for the next-generation LEAP jet engines developed by CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and France’s Safran Aircraft Engines. The nozzles are 25 percent lighter and five times as durable as their ordinary counterparts. That’s because 3D printing allows engineers to create the best design and then print it directly from a computer file. In the past, the nozzles were made from 18 separate parts; now they come in one piece.
Unlike conventional manufacturing, methods such as 3D printing essentially “grow” parts from a bed of metal powder with hardly any waste. (GE is also using machines that print parts from polymers and even sand.) These techniques allow engineers to design parts with complex internal geometries that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to make.
The thickness of the layers ranges between 20 and 80 microns, less than the width of the human hair. “It’s exactly like welding, but on a microscopic scale,” Brian Adkins, additive manufacturing engineer at GE’s Center for Additive Manufacturing Advancement, told GE Reports.
An SLM machine at GE Power’s Advanced Manufacturing Works in Greenville, South Carolina. Image credit: GE Power
The center, which opened in April, as well as GE Aviation’s additive labs, GE Power’s Advanced Manufacturing Works and new technology development by GE Global Research, illustrate the scope of the company’s push into the field.
There’s no other way, says Greg Morris, an additive manufacturing pioneer and founder of Morris Technologies, now also part of GE Aviation. Consider that CFM received orders and commitments for more than 11,000 LEAP engines, each holding up to 20 3D-printed nozzles. He says that GE will need to print more than 40,000 nozzles per year by 2020 to meet demand.
In fact, if you visited Turkey this summer and took a Pegasus Airlines flight from Istanbul to Ankara or vacation hotspots such as Bodrum or Izmir, chances are that you were helping to write a new chapter in the history of aviation. In July, Pegasus became the world’s first operator of an Airbus A320neo passenger jet powered with a pair of LEAP engines.
At the same time, GE Aviation is developing the Advanced Turboprop Engine (ATP) for a new Cessna aircraft that also will be largely 3D-printed, reducing the number of components from more than 800 to just dozens.
Morris says that GE plans to connect its additive manufacturing machines to its cloud-based Predix software platform for the Industrial Internet. The platform will help workers analyze data, improve quality, optimize production and eventually streamline the supply chain. “Everything is getting digital and connected,” Morris says. “This is what we call the brilliant factory.”