GE Additive, a subsidiary of GE Aviation with test facilities in West Chester, is making aircraft engine parts so complex that better 3D printers are needed. It's partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a leader in additive manufacturing, for help in designing machines that can keep up.
The five-year cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) focuses on processes, materials and software to drive broader adoption of additive manufacturing technology.
"We can design parts that are so intricate it's hard to imagine. We now need machines that can keep up with that," says GE Additive Technology Developer Christine Furstoss. "It's almost like Etch-A-Sketch. If you remember those days where you draw it layer by layer, and we're getting properties and shapes no one else could imagine."
For the last four years GE has been manufacturing 3D printed fuel nozzles for the A320's jet engine. Sixty other designs are being perfected, some reducing the number of parts from 855 to 12 with additive manufacturing.
Assistant Secretary of the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the DOE Daniel Simmons toured GE's West Chester facility and was impressed. He says for a long time it seemed like 3D printed parts were little toys. "The point is that these are not little toys. These are real parts in the real world. They're made out of metal, like in some cases you can't make these parts in another way."
At Oak Ridge, scientists are designing a nuclear reactor with additive manufacturing. Associate Lab Director Moe Khaleel puts his hand at his waist. "It's about this high and if I extended my arms that would be the diameter of that reactor."
Oak Ridge also has the world's fastest computer.
Both the DOE and GE emphasize that what's really important is that other 3D printers will benefit from the technology that comes out of this partnership. Says GE's Furstoss, "We're really going to bring it to the masses to small and medium enterprises to be able to really differentiate themselves and be able to continually invest in U.S. manufacturing."