Just Press Print: GE Is Building A 3D-Printing Vending Machine For The Jetsons

First published on GE Reports
When biomedical researchers are looking for a new drug, they study hundreds of chemicals at a time to learn how slightly different combinations of molecules will attack a particular disease. It’s called combinatorial chemistry.

Now, GE scientists are applying a similar method to additive manufacturing, which includes technologies like 3D printing. They are tweaking and testing various material combinations to achieve the best properties for a given part. The approach is helping engineers working at the Additive Materials Lab inside GE Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna, New York, move quickly through the early, iterative stages of alloy development. The goal is to increase the repertoire of new materials and, by extension, the variety of products the machines can make.

“We will of course need new machine technology that allows for bigger and more complex-shaped parts to be printed,” says Joe Vinciquerra, who leads the Additive Materials Lab. “But, fundamentally, you also need to be able to work with a wider variety of materials. We are expanding the vocabulary of our machines.”

This is a timely project. In 2016, GE spent more than $1 billion to buy controlling stakes in two leading manufacturers of industrial 3D printers: Sweden’s Arcam AB and Germany’s Concept Laser. While Concept Laser’s machines use lasers to shape components by fusing fine layers metallic powder, Arcam printers rely on an electron beam, which is even more powerful. They can make parts from wonder materials like titanium aluminate (TiAl), which is 50 percent lighter than steel but very hard to shape. An additive factory in Cameri, Italy, is already printing TiAl turbine blades for the GE9X, the world’s largest jet engine GE Aviation is developing for Boeing’s next-generation wide-body jet.

Vinciquerra’s goal is to tap GE’s deep well of materials science knowledge — the company’s engineers invented space-age ceramics, carbon fibers and even Silly Putty — and develop a proprietary recipe book for 3D-printing materials. Today, even the most advanced 3D printers only use a limited number of materials that follow very specific formulas that take as many as eight years to develop. That’s because their products must meet stringent industrial standards. “In our work, we must understand the performance and durability of metal parts in complex systems like jet engines, where factors like strength, heat tolerance and crack resistance are extremely important,” says Laura Dial, a materials scientist in the Additive Materials Lab.

Dial, who has been leading the new materials development, says that 3D printers that work with metals typically build parts from fine layers of metal powder fused together by a laser or other high-energy beam. Depending on the size of the part, printers can build one or dozens of parts at a time.

From the start, 3D printers give designers the freedom and flexibility to manufacture shapes directly from a CAD drawing that were previously impossible to produce. But the input material still limits the printed parts’ applications.

Dial and her colleagues are studying more than 800 combinations of materials and manufacturing process variables. The idea is that different machines will use different combinations of these two to create different products. Although GE’s Aviation, Power and Oil & Gas businesses are already 3D printing fuel nozzles and other components, the team’s findings will be particularly useful to GE Additive, the new unit the company launched last year.

Concept Laser and Arcam machines are already printing medical implants and other high-tech parts, and GE foresees an expansive universe of other applications. “We’re aiming to turn 3D printers into space-age machines that the Jetsons would be envious of,” Vinciquerra says. “We envision a world where anything the human mind can imagine — from biomedical implants to jewelry — can be manufactured with the push of a button.”

The lab, which has been around for a little over a year, is developing a database with material recipes the machines could tap every time they need to create a specific part. Says Vinciquerra: “If we do it right, and we continue to leverage the power of the GE Store to merge materials and machine technology with digital, we can truly create that space-age vending machine that prints world-class parts for anyone on demand.”