Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Sunday, December 28, 2014
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GE Turns to Makers to Bring 3D Printing to Aerospace 

At 30,000 feet, equipment failure is simply not an option, which is part of why additive manufacturing has been a bit slow to catch on in the aerospace industry. While processes like selective laser sintering have helped to develop more advanced and even more structurally sound components for several airplane parts, the fact is that key structures like turbine blades that keep the plane afloat and are often subject to intense stress will be left out of consideration for additive manufacturing for a while.

But according to Michael Idelchik, vice president of GE’s advanced technologies research, GE Aviation is still looking for more ways that additive manufacturing can help to create a better airplane, and has talked about “printing large portions of jet engines” to meet that end.

Most recently we reported on GE’s laser-printed fuel nozzles for their next-generation LEAP engines, which are 25 percent lighter than the current alternative that’s welded from 20 different parts.

“We already know that it can be done, we’ve been playing with it for a while,” Idelchik said. “Now we want to develop an ecosystem of designers, engineers, materials scientists, and other partners who can learn with us. We have a number of products that we are going to be launching and we want to challenge people to get into business with us. If the ecosystem grows, the entire industry will grow.”

Putting some weight behind Idelchik’s claim is a pair of “additive manufacturing quests” that GE announced this past week at RAPID 2013. Their goal is to entice innovators and entrepreneurs alike to rise to the challenge of designing a lightweight bracket and hangers to operate in a jet engine, as well as to produce a number of complex components for healthcare technologies.

The first “quest” is called 3D Printing Design Quest, and focuses on the brackets and hangers that support key engine parts during handling and challenges participants to engineer a part that is 30 percent lighter than GE’s current option.

For those of you that were expecting the part in question to be a turbine blade, compressor component or another fuel nozzle, a little further explanation into what exactly this part does and why it is important might be necessary. In short, the loading brackets on jet engines support the engine’s weight during handling, and remain on the engine at all times—even during flight. They cannot warp or break since that would mean dropping a $2 million engine, but the weight that helps them to be so sturdy also adds a significant amount of weight to the engine during flight, which ultimately contributes to drag and lowers the plane’s fuel economy.

What additive manufacturing brings to the table is the opportunity to optimize this part for moth manufacturing and for flight, by using less material while simultaneously eliminating the weak links that traditionally-made parts have at welding spots.

On the outside, brackets and hangers may not sound ground-breaking, or particularly enticing, for that matter. After all, this falls right into place with the role additive manufacturing has already been locked into for aerospace applications where it plays a supporting role but stays clear of the spotlight. There, traditional manufacturing processes are likely to dominate for some time more, until engineers are certain that more 3D-printed parts will a safe and dependable addition to a jet engine.

But Idelchek expects that this contest could help open the doors for the best and the brightest from the maker community to become more closely involved with GE, and eventually help to design even more complex and critical aerospace components.

“We would like to see some of the people who enter the challenge to become our suppliers as we launch new products,” Idelchek said.

Helping to bring that talent to the playing field is a $20,000 prize pool offered to the top eight designs, on top of a $1,000 prize to each of the top ten entries, offered by GE and its partner, GrabCAD.

Upping the ante is GE’s second quest, called 3D Printing Production Quest: High Precision and Advanced Manufacturing. There, the focus is on healthcare instead of aerospace, and the prizes are substantially greater: the top ten entrants will receive $5,000 each, along with an invitation to produce those parts using GE materials. Then, GE and partner Nine Sigma will select up to three winning entrants that they will award up to $50,000.

With these contests, GE’s placed its bet that not only will additive manufacturing take over as the next big innovation in manufacturing, but that this takeover is happening now. “How this ecosystem will develop will define how far additive manufacturing will go,” said Idelchek. “I believe that we will get some outstanding participants with breakthrough ideas who will like to start a business.”

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