Manufacturing of a 3D printed ultrasound probe at GE. The company says it’s the world’s largest user of additive manufacturing technology, which it believes can greatly reduce labor and production costs and improve design flexibility for a variety of components. (Credit: GE.)
It’s Friday, Oct. 4th. How are you feeling today?
Hungry? It’s Cinnamon Roll Day in Sweden and Taco Day in the US.
Sporty? You might like to know it’s National Golf Day.
It’s also World Animal Day, timed to coincide with the feast day of well-known animal lover St. Francis of Assisi.
For an Oct. 4th holiday that’s just plain silly, there’s Toot Your Own Flute Day. On the more serious side, Oct. 4th marks the start of World Space Week and the anniversary of the launch of the USSR’s Sputnik satellite in 1957.
And, today is national Manufacturing Day in the US.
Don’t stress if you haven’t heard of MFG Day—it just got started last year. Organizers, a coalition of manufacturing associations, government entities, and media partners, aim to raise awareness of manufacturing’s importance in the US and begin to address concerns such as a growing shortage of skilled labor for today’s high-tech manufacturing jobs.
Speaking of high-tech, arguably no segment of manufacturing is hotter or more high-tech than additive manufacturing. The technology, more commonly known as 3D printing, has taken off since coming to the attention of the mainstream media about a year ago. And, as so often happens, all the media attention has in some cases led to a bit of hyperbole.
An example might be this news release, which announces the start of research into 4D printing—the fourth dimension, of course, being time.
The work itself is quite serious. Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh, Harvard, and the University of Illinois are working to develop materials for 3D printing that can adapt to changing conditions over time by changing their properties.
The researchers aim to build complicated functionality into 3D printed components or specific areas of those components at the nano and micro levels. According to the release, the research will “use responsive fillers embedded within a stimuli-responsive hydrogel” to produce new smart sensors, coatings, textiles, and structural components. The result could be, for example, camouflage fabrics that adapt to different conditions or industrial coatings that change properties as a result of changes in their environment.
If that’s not far out enough for you (and as another tip o’ the hat to World Space Week), consider that NASA is edging closer to launching the first 3D printer into space.
Working with Mountain View, Calif., company Made in Space, the agency has developed a 3D printer designed to work in microgravity conditions. The partners envision astronauts on the International Space Station and future missions manufacturing much of what they need on the spot rather than depending on supplies sent from Earth. The technology has already been tested in microgravity conditions and is scheduled to be launched to the ISS in 2014. According to Made in Space, the experiment will serve as a demonstrator and allow comparison of parts made in microgravity with components produced on Earth.
A bit closer to home than the average ISS orbit altitude of 210 miles, General Electric made a splash last spring when it announced that its next-generation LEAP engine for commercial aircraft, developed in partnership with France’s Snecma, would include 3D printed components. According to this company news release, by 2020 every LEAP engine will feature 19 fuel nozzles made by additive manufacturing that are up to 25 percent lighter and five times more durable than nozzles produced by more traditional routes.
GE’s website provides a good overview of its additive manufacturing efforts, and last week the company produced a webcast featuring a panel discussion of the current and future state of additive manufacturing technology. The event was hosted by Christine Furstoss, technical director of manufacturing and materials technologies at GE Global Research. According to Furstoss, GE is the world’s largest user of additive technology, producing not only prototypes and tooling but components for the aforementioned aircraft engines, power generation systems, and medical diagnostic equipment such as ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging systems.
In a recent post, Eileen lamented the seeming lack of focus on development of ceramic materials for 3D printing. But Furstoss says GE has produced ceramic parts, and she doesn’t see a lot of limitations when it comes to additive manufacturing using different classes of ceramic materials.
“We at GE are very interested in how we can use 3D printing for ceramics, in large part because ceramic production today requires very heavy infrastructure, a lot of investment, and of course a lot of process knowledge,” she says in the webcast. “The process knowledge and the materials knowledge don’t go away, but we did quite a bit of work over the past three to four years looking at printing of piezoelectric ceramic materials, predominantly for medical imaging.”
Furstoss explains that GE worked with the US National Institutes of Health to demonstrate 3D printing of ultrasound probes to improve imaging and lower costs. The component is currently in trials, and “there really is no limitation we’ve found as to the types of ceramic materials” that can be used for additive manufacturing, she says.
Whether it uses ceramics or not (and according to Furstoss, there’s no reason it can’t), additive manufacturing is clearly a dynamic technology with a big potential upside. Stay tuned to CTT for more coverage as it’s warranted.
And Happy MFG Day!