When biomedical researchers are looking for a new drug, they study hundreds of chemicals at a time to learn how slightly different combinations of molecules will attack a particular disease. It’s called combinatorial chemistry. Now, GE scientists are applying a similar approach with a 3D printing vending machine of sorts.
They are tweaking and testing various material combinations to achieve the best properties for a given part. The approach is helping engineers working at the Additive Materials Lab inside GE Global Research headquarters in Niskayuna, New York, move quickly through the early, iterative stages of alloy development, increase the repertoire of new materials and, by extension, the variety of products the machines can make.
“We will of course need new machine technology that allows for bigger and more complex-shaped parts to be printed,” says Joe Vinciquerra, who leads the Additive Materials Lab. “But, fundamentally, you also need to be able to work with a wider variety of materials. We are expanding the vocabulary of our machines.”
Vinciquerra’s goal is to tap GE’s deep well of materials science knowledge — the company’s engineers invented space-age ceramics, carbon fibers and even Silly Putty — and develop a proprietary recipe book for 3D-printing materials. Today, even the most advanced 3D printers only use a limited number of materials that follow very specific recipes that take as many as eight years to develop. That’s because their products must meet stringent industrial standards. “In our work, we must understand the performance and durability of metal parts in complex systems like jet engines, where factors like strength, heat tolerance and crack resistance are extremely important,” says Laura Dial, a materials scientist in the Additive Materials Lab.
Dial, who has been leading the new materials development, says that 3D printers that work with metals typically build parts from fine layers of metal powder fused together by a laser or other high-energy beam. Depending on the size of the part, printers can build one or dozens of parts at a time.
From the get-go, 3D printers give designers the freedom and flexibility to manufacture shapes directly from a CAD drawing that were previously impossible to produce. But the input material still limits the printed parts’ applications.
Dial and her colleagues are studying more than 800 combinations of materials and manufacturing process variables. The idea is that different machines will use different combinations of these two to create different products. Although GE’s Aviation, Power and Oil & Gas businesses are already 3D printing fuel nozzles and other components, the team’s findings will be particularly useful to GE Additive, a new unit the company launched following last year’s acquisition of two pioneering makers of 3D printers that use metals: Germany’s Concept Laser and Sweden’s Arcam AB.
Their machines are already printing medical implants and other high-tech parts, and GE foresees an expansive universe of other applications. “We’re aiming to turn 3D printers into space-age machines that the Jetsons would be envious of,” Vinciquerra says. “We envision a world where anything the human mind can imagine — from biomedical implants to jewelry — can be manufactured with the push of a button.”
The lab, which has been around for a year, is developing a database with material recipes the machines could tap every time they need to create a specific part. Says Vinciquerra: “If we do it right, and we continue to leverage the power of the GE Store to merge materials and machine technology with digital, we can truly create that space-age vending machine that prints world-class parts for anyone on demand.”