Supersize Me: GE Takes 3D Printing to Massive Gas Turbines

July 23, 2013

Over the last decade, engineers at GE Aviation have been experimenting with a new way to make jet engine parts. Rather than cutting, milling and drilling engine components, they weld together thin layers of powdered metal with a 200-watt laser and build parts from the ground up. Now, other businesses are supersizing 3D printing and pushing the technology into new areas.

GE Power and Water recently acquired a laser printer that is five times as powerful as the GE Aviation machine and can work with two lasers at the same time. “We are learning how to use this technology,” says Jon Schaeffer, senior manager for materials and processing engineering for Power and Water. “We’ve got to spread the word and change the design paradigm that metallurgists, designers and manufacturing teams have had for a long time.”

Schaeffer says that the 3D printer will help speed up innovation and test new ideas and designs faster. “We’ve been able to embed new technologies into our components without the messy manufacturing steps normally required,” he says. “We are cutting out months in the development cycle with this technology.”

The printer’s build area is almost a cubic foot, large enough to print gas turbine parts. “The biggest thing that was holding us back was the size of the chamber,” Schaeffer says. “But the chamber volume has grown 50 times over the last five years. It’s almost like Moore’s law for 3D printing.”

Schaeffer, who started at GE two decades ago in GE Aviation, points to his former colleagues as a model for making advanced technologies work. GE Aviation is already printing nozzles for the next-generation LEAP jet engine. Each nozzle used to made from 18 parts welded together. It is now grown as a single piece that is 25 percent lighter than its predecessor.

David Joyce, president and CEO of GE Aviation, says that the technology liberated his business from the limitations of machining. “It gives the designer a whole different palette of colors to paint with, and truly on a whole new canvas,” Joyce says.

Engineers at Power and Water have already used their new machine to design and print a cooling shroud for GE’s latest gas turbine. “There was a time when we could not test new designs and technologies in new parts because we were not able to make them,” Schaeffer says. “3D printing is pointing engineers in the right direction to see if they’ve got a successful concept. It’s really quite exciting.”

A new 1-kilowatt 3D laser printer is finishing the GE monogram. (Our video below has the final result.)