GE is using 3D printing and other additive technologies to design and produce parts never before possible. We’re even developing new ways to additively repair parts. But make them more intelligent too? Yes, you read right, or should I say “write”… Direct Write to be precise.
In the Lab, I am working with yet another additive technology in GE’s toolkit called “Direct Write.” Like 3D printing and 3D painting (a.k.a. cold spray), Direct Write actually is not new. The technology has been around for about 15 years. The process was the outcome of a DARPA program in the late 1990s and early 2000s titled Mesoscopic Integrated Conformal Electronics (MICE). My program at Global Research has been ongoing for about two years.
Direct Write works as shown in the video above shot in our Additive labs. Think of an “automated pen” that can deposit or “ink” material onto a surface and build up a part. The types of parts that are ideal for Direct Write are small-scale structures with very fine features like a sensor or antenna. Since the original DARPA program, a few Direct Write products have been commercialized. For example, ever wonder why cell phones no longer have antennas that stick out? That’s because you can now put an antenna right onto the cell phone itself, and direct write is a good way to make those antennas. Sensors are another popular application that can be made using direct write technologies.
Why is GE so excited? Well, this technology fits right in with our vision for creating more intelligent machines that take advantage of the emerging Industrial Internet. Using Direct Write, you can embed more intelligence within a structure, so that the structure can sense and respond to its environment. For example, one application GE is developing is to build small devices such as sensors on parts to measure things like temperature or strain. Temperature and strain are two key features to track in the kind of products we make like jet engines that function in hot, harsh environments. Using Direct Write, we can print sensors onto parts and get them into places we couldn’t put them before. This, in turn, will enhance the real-time data analytics and condition monitoring that can be performed on our products.
The other reasons we’re excited about Direct Write is for the new materials that we can create and also for how well this technology can be integrated with automated manufacturing processes for higher throughput. One advantage we’re working to exploit is to design new sensors that can function in much harsher temperature environments. That is a big challenge many are trying to meet in the sensor world. We think Direct Write could enable solutions here.
Stay tuned, we will have more to report as our technology program evolves. For now, it’s time to put my writing pen down and get back to the lab for some more direct writing!