7 Examples of How 3D Printing is Being Used in Manufacturing Today
Ian Wright posted on September 27, 2017 | 10483 views
(Image courtesy of GE.)

(Image courtesy of GE.)

There’s a lot of hype surrounding 3D printing technology, but in spite—or perhaps because—of that, one might wonder whether additive manufacturing is all it’s cracked up to be. Are we really in the midst of a new age of additive manufacturing?

Kirk Rogers, technology lead at the GE Center for Additive Technology in Pittsburgh, seems to think so. In a keynote presentation at the Canadian Manufacturing Technology Show (CMTS), he discussed several examples of how GE is using additive manufacturing today.

To put these examples in context, Rogers outlined five levels of complexity for AM parts:

  • Level 0 – Jigs and Fixtures
  • Level 1 – Components
  • Level 2 – Subsystems
  • Level 3 – Functional Integration
  • Level 4 – Advanced Functionalities (self-assembly, embedded functional electronics, etc.)

Rogers was adamant that every manufacturer—from giants like GE to SMEs—should be experimenting with Level 0 in order to get into what he described as the additive manufacturing mindset. “Just like lean manufacturing is a mindset change, additive is a mindset change as well,” Rogers said.

At the other end of the scale, working with additive manufacturing at the highest level of complexity is still mostly reserved for research institutions like MIT’s Media Lab. But although Level 4 isn’t seeing industrial use yet, companies today are working with additive at all other levels of complexity.

Here are seven examples that Rogers discussed:


1. Casting Molds

(Image courtesy of the author.)
(Image courtesy of the author.)
“Our transportation business was having problems with a mining truck customer, which was complaining that one of the fans on their trucks was too loud,” Rogers explained. “We immediately went to work redesigning it, and used 3D sand printing—binder jetting—to print casting molds, and we made the first few of these in just six weeks.”

Rogers compared this to using traditional molds, emphasizing that the lead time in that case would have been six months, with a $70,000 (USD) tooling investment. Although the cost of the casting was considerably higher for the printed molds ($6,500/casting vs $500/casting), Rogers argued that “getting parts into the customer’s hand to solve their problem is far more valuable.”


2. Prototype Parts for Production

(Image courtesy of the author.)
(Image courtesy of the author.)
“This is an example from a company that was working on a part with Youngstown University for an injection mold tool,” said Rogers. “The customer needed a small volume—50 sets of tools—so they compared conventional molding with 3D printed molds.”

What they found was that, at this volume, a part made with conventional molds would cost $179.90, whereas parts made using 3D-printed molds would cost only $57.90. “If you’re a start-up and you just need to make a first round of parts to test the market, 3D printed plastic molds for injection molding is very simple to do, and you can recycle the models when you’re done.”


3. Sub-Scale Turbine Blade Mold

(Image courtesy of the author.)
(Image courtesy of the author.)
“This was created by Oakridge National Lab,” explained Rogers. “By 3D printing the tools, they reduced tooling costs by 50 percent and reduced the total manufacturing costs for this demonstrator by 20 percent, and we haven’t even talked about the lead time reduction.”

Rogers noted that, had the tool been made conventionally, it would have cost millions—all for the sake of making a few blades for a sub-scale model.


4. Dishwasher Components

(Image courtesy of the author.)
(Image courtesy of the author.)
Moving up to Level 1, Rogers gave the example of making components for GE dishwashers. “Imagine if, instead of being mass-market, dishwashers were customizable,” Rogers said. Showing two components—one injection molded and one 3D printed—he invited the audience to judge which was which; no one volunteered.

“The only difference is that the 3D-printed one cost less at reasonable volumes,” Rogers said.


5. Housing for Compressor Inlet Temperature Sensor

(Image courtesy of the author.)
(Image courtesy of the author.)
This part is well known as the first 3D-printed part for a jet engine certified by the FAA. “After the GE 90 engines were in service—we had about 400—they were starting to show a problem with the temperature sensor icing on polar routes,” Rogers explained.

“We wanted to put a solution in our customers’ hands as soon as possible,” he continued. “So, instead of making two investment castings and figuring out how to machine them and put them together, we printed the part using additive. Doing that reduced the lead time and the manufacturing time, while increasing reliability.”


6. Heat Exchangers

(Image courtesy of the author.)
(Image courtesy of the author.)
As an example of a Level 2 application, Rogers cited a heat exchanger as an example of a component that’s difficult and expensive to make, as well as being reliability challenged. “What if the heat exchanger at the front of your car didn’t define the shape of the front of your car?” Rogers wondered. “What could a car look like?”

By 3D printing an aviation heat exchanger, GE was able to reduce the number of parts involved from 242 to one. “It’s 30 percent smaller, it has 25 percent better performance and it’s a little bit cheaper,” Rogers said.


7. ATP Engine

(Image courtesy of GE.)
(Image courtesy of GE.)
Turning to Level 3 applications, Rogers explained how using additive manufacturing for GE’s ATP engines reduced the combustor test schedule from 12 months to 6, reduced weight by 5 percent as well as the part count. “855 parts were taken out during the redesign, and replaced with just 12 additive parts. Think about that: wouldn’t you like to be the supplier for one of those 12 parts?”

However, the most impressive part of this example is the resulting increase in fuel efficiency. “They were able to get 20 percent lower fuel,” said Rogers. “Airlines will pay a billion dollars for a one-percent reduction, and they got 20 percent in just one engine redesign.”


The Future of Additive Manufacturing

Rogers is certainly optimistic about the prospects for additive manufacturing, particularly in the medical and dental industry, the aerospace industry and even the automotive industry. However, he’s also realistic about the place of 3D printing technology in manufacturing as a whole.

“Of the parts that we’ve made at our additive manufacturing center,” said Rogers “85 percent have required traditional manufacturing technologies, like machining.” 

So, although additive is growing at a rapid pace—two years ago, GE had one additive production part; last year, it was four; this year it will be 30 and next year 100—it’s not going to supplant traditional manufacturing entirely.

However, that doesn’t mean you can afford to ignore the sweeping changes additive technology will bring about, even if you’re a small job shop. To that point, Rogers offered the following advice to SMEs: “Don’t go after direct parts: start with the lower levels and if you’re successful, ask your customers about more complex applications.”

For more information, visit the GE Additive website.

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