It’s been 100 years since Henry Ford’s assembly line disrupted the way companies made things. The current advent of additive manufacturing may prove to be equally momentous. “It’s one of the biggest things to happen in manufacturing in some time,” says Luana Iorio, material scientist at GE Global Research (GRC).
Additive manufacturing “prints” an object from a digital file by depositing one layer of material layer on top of another, rather than starting with, say, a piece of forged steel and cutting, sawing or milling it away. It allows companies to more easily manufacture complex shapes and structures such as fuel nozzles and blades that have been traditionally difficult to make. “You give the designers a completely new freedom,” says Iorio, who leads GRC’s additive manufacturing research. “They are not bound by the constraints of traditional manufacturing. They can really strip down products to the core of what it is they need them to do.”
Light Bulb Moment: Last weekend, GE brought its GE Garages, a high-concept, hands-on lab loaded with 3D printers like the MakerBot, laser cutters, injection molders, computer numeric control mills and other high-tech tools to the Maker Faire Bay Area gathering is San Francisco. Kids as well as adults could learn how modern prototyping and manufacturing works, and participate in hands-on workshops, specialized training and education, and classes with guest speakers. The GE light bulbs above were produced with a laser cutter.
This will benefit industries like aviation where weight reduction can translate into multi-million fuel savings. But the GRC team is developing “printing” applications for all GE businesses, from healthcare to energy. “The potential makes us excited about what we can do. We’re looking at applying additive manufacturing to polymers, ceramics, metals, all kinds of materials for many different components across the GE product line,” Iorio says.
Like ordinary printing, the process starts with a digital file that holds a 3-D image of the manufactured component. A team of GRC software engineers is developing design applications to harness the method’s full power. “We need to give the designers new tools so they can take advantage of the new manufacturing freedom,” Iorio says.
Another team of engineers spend the bulk of their time building the actual “printers.” “There are still many obstacles,” Iorio says. “The machines are evolving very quickly and some, like the MakerBot that you can assemble yourself, are pretty inexpensive. But if you want to make components from metals that we use for building aircraft engines, those machines cost a million or more.”
Manufacturing speed and product size are also a challenge. “How can we get more throughput from these machines, how can we make the parts bigger and the material properties more reliable,” Iorio says. Her team includes material scientists, mechanical, manufacturing and software engineers, chemists, physicists and experts across many GE businesses. “This is very much a multi-disciplinary effort and I think what gives us an edge in this space.”
Ford edged out his competition by harnessing the power and the speed of the assembly line, which allowed him to make one Model-T after another. But that’s not enough anymore. Customers demand products specific to their needs. “If you look at the megatrend of mass customization, additive manufacturing is the way that people will be able to get things tailor-made,” Iorio says. “In traditional manufacturing, you’ve got produce tooling that is often very expensive, and you need to produce tens of thousands of parts that are identical to recoup the cost. With additive manufacturing, there is none of that. It’s just as easy to print the next part customized and different from the previous part, as it is to produce the same thing over and over again.”