Materials

GE Is Developing the World's Largest Laser-Powered 3D Metal Printer

Using powdered metal and high-powered lasers, this additive manufacturing machine can produce virtually any metal part within a one-meter cube area.<br /> &nbsp;

In this context, the term 3D printing is a bit misleading, as it conjures images of consumer desktop devices extruding pink plastic gizmos. The GE device is much bigger operation, and part of the broader category of technology known as additive manufacturing (AM). As with desktop 3D printers, AM machines build up three-dimensional objects layer by layer. But these industrial-strength machines can produce larger and more intricate objects by using powerful lasers to manipulate titanium, aluminum, and other metals.

The new GE device, codenamed ATLAS in its demo iteration and currently being manufactured, will be the most massive laser AM printer yet deployed, according to company officials. When the as-yet-unnamed production model is released for commercial sale next year, it will be able to print virtually any kind of metal part that can fit into a one-square meter cube.

The aerospace industry has long relied on traditional and complex tooling techniques to make the thousands of parts needed to get a plane into the air. Additive manufacturing is steadily making inroads within the industry. At the Paris Air Show, heavyweights like Airbus and Boeing showed off several AM components that were installed in new and upcoming aircraft.

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GE is planning to sell the AD machine to aerospace manufacturers initially, though the company said it will also be pitching to customers in the auto industry, as well as oil and gas companies.

GE Aviation also presented its Advanced Turboprop (ATP) design at the air show, offering a glimpse of the first commercial aircraft engine to have a significant portion of its components made by additive manufacturing. Turboprop engines are typically used to power and personal aircraft and small commercial shuttles — puddle jumpers — and the engine design hasn't fundamentally changed since the 1960s, according to GE.

Using AM methods, GE designers were able to rethink aircraft engine design from the ground up, as it were, reducing 855 separate parts down to 12.

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Additive manufacturing also helped the GE team to develop the engine in record time.

“The ATP is going from a dream to a reality in just two years,” said Gordie Follin, executive manager of GE Aviation’s ATP program, in a statement announcing the new aircraft engine. “The normal cycle to get to a running engine is usually twice as long, and it can take as much as 10 years to develop. With additive manufacturing, we’re disrupting the whole production cycle.”

GE plans to ship beta versions of the new AM machine to partners this year, and will officially unveil the production version in November at the Formnext Show in Frankfurt, Germany.

WATCH: The Future of 3D Printing