Taking a break from drilling holes in exotic alloys with a powerful laser beam, Hongqiang Chen peers into the near future. “Manufacturing workers will soon be like Jedi Knights, wielding laser tools that cut, weld and scribe advanced metal and ceramic materials into complex parts,” says Chen, lead laser processing engineer at GE Global Research (GRC). “Advanced manufacturing has arrived and we’re beginning to see laser technologies move from specialty applications to common tools used by workers on the plant floor.”
Indeed we are. Workers at a brand new GE Aviation plant in Auburn, Alabama, which opened today, will be using lasers to drill tiny cooling holes in jet engine blades made from heat-resistant super-alloys that serve inside the high pressure turbine. “This is one of the most critical and sophisticated components in our jet engines,” says David Joyce, GE Aviation CEO. “They are perfectly shaped aerodynamically, with laser-drilled cooling holes because they operate at extraordinary temperatures. We consider them a work of art.”
GE has invested $75 million in the new plant. The company expect to hire 300 to 400 workers by the end of the decade.
Laser Vision: Hongqiang Chen and his GRC team are using lasers to manufacture jet engine components.
Chen and his colleagues are developing laser tools that can not only drill, bull also weld and print. The GRC lab has one of the most powerful lasers in North America. At 20 kilowatts, it is 50,000 times more powerful than a DVD burner. The researchers mounted the laser on a robot and use it to melt metal and develop new welding methods that are more efficient, faster, and more eco-friendly than conventional ways.
The scientists tap the laser’s high-energy density to penetrate deep and fast into metal parts. The laser welding robot can cover 90 inches per minute. That’s three times faster than conventional welding methods. The system is also easier to set up. “This technology going to touch all aspects of our lives,” says engineer Duncan Pratt. “It will allow us to be smarter about how we use materials and how we manufacture things.”
The GRC team is also designing applications for 3-D laser printers. Unlike the laser printer in your office, the machines in the GE labs are using a high-power laser beam to melt in precise places one thin layer of metal powder after another. The machines add layers of the powder in a special tub. The laser then precisely fuses the dust motes in the desired shape. The process can already produce complicated jet engine parts now made by laboriously welding dozens of tiny pieces together.
“Product cycles are getting shorter and labor costs are rising, even in developing world,” Chen says. “The premium today is on technology and laser tools will help us stay on top.”