There’s disruption on the horizon in the world of manufacturing once again, “as disruptive as the adoption of cast iron, steel and aluminum over the past two centuries,” according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (6-8-16: “The Future of Manufacturing“).
While the idea of 3-D printing for plastic – or additive manufacturing as it’s often called – is becoming common and cheap, it’s another thing entirely to apply it to metal. That field remains in its infancy, but it’s coming to life in places from Carnegie Mellon University to General Electric.
Traditionally, the limitations of molds and machine tools mean that engineers design parts based on what’s possible, often falling short of the ideal product. With 3-D metal printing, they can come closer to that ideal. “It starts with advanced modeling software that can analyze a part being developed, based on likely stresses and forces,” points out Journal editor Daniel Michaels. The software can then indicate ideal shapes and minimum structures necessary to build the product. The resulting designs can end up being lighter and more complex than anything made by traditional technologies.
And, they can be printed.
It gives the power to move beyond simply improving on existing designs, and “embracing the freedom to redesign parts that couldn’t have been imagined before,” according to a professor at the Univ. of Nottingham, in England. Designers and engineers will be asked to fundamentally rethink what they’ve always done before.
General Electric is currently printing thousands of fuel nozzles for Boeing jet engines. They’re 25% lighter than the ones being replaced, and has reduced an 18 part piece down to just one – and it’s said to be five times as durable.
Alcoa is developing both new processes and materials to make 3-D printing faster and more affordable. The combination of new alloys, designs and properties has led to a great deal of excitement there.
In the long run, notes a chief engineer at Boeing, taking advantage of 3-D printing’s full potential will require companies in fields as varied as software, metallurgy and machine-building to support one another. “Additive manufacturing is an ecosystem,” he says.
And when that happens, says a GE VP of manufacturing, “that’s when it gets exciting.” Click the WSJ link above for the online article.