Leave it to the wonky crew at GE’s Global Research Center to give Christmas a high-tech makeover. Last year, they applied some of their new technologies and tricked out Santa’s sleigh with ultra-light, super-durable blades from ceramic matrix composites for more efficient flight, added self-powering OLED lights, and sprayed it with icephobic coatings made of nanoparticles to prevent ice build-up.
This year, they took aim at the Christmas tree. Clearly not content with the available selection of glass balls, icicles, stars, and other ornaments, they cracked up the machinery inside their new additive manufacturing lab and made their own.
Additive manufacturing is fancy name for what could be also called 3D printing. The printing machines at the lab add thin layers of materials one on top of the other. Then they zap the micron-thick layers with intricate UV light patterns that make the layers stick and together form complicated three-dimensional objects. The methods cuts down on labor and material waste, compared to traditional manufacturing method such as forging, casting, or machining.
The technology also allows engineers to make structural components more porous at the center and denser near the perimeter, say like bones, and reduce their weight by as much as a fifth while preserving their mechanical properties.
On a regular day, they work on serious stuff such as fuel nozzles for engines or complicated parts of ultrasound scanners called transducers. But this week, they lightened their workload and got into the ornament business. “The 3D Christmas ornaments are wonderful examples of the exciting possibilities in additive manufacturing to achieve revolutionary new product designs,” said Prabhjot Singh, the lab’s manager.
As beautiful as the ornaments look, making them still requires a lot of patience. It took GE researchers 14 to 16 hours to make just one.