Just when you think that you’ve seen the most from what 3D printing has to offer science throws another curve ball that impresses everyone who sees it. General Electric has astounded us all with their scale jet engine using a new printing technique: melting layers and layers of metal powder together using a laser. While this is cool in it’s own right they’ve taken it far further and made it function at over 30,000 rotations per minute with fuel similarly to radio controlled jet engines. Surprisingly this model made it to the test benches used in testing full scale jet engines for stability and performance, meaning that GE is very much looking into this as a practical soulution and not just entertaining some pipedream of a radical engineering student. This is amazingly exciting for the prospects of more precise and complex designs in larger mechanical systems, you can print interlocking pieces like a ball bearing on a shaft as one whole piece straight from the machine.
While most companies would be excited for the things they’d be able to make the bigger picture is integrating all the new technologies with existing ones, 3D printed parts alongside traditionally manufactured ones. We’ve seen this before in the world of 3D printing with home printer owner’s printing small replacement parts for cars and for things around the house, but a company actually seeing value in it and making their own machines and hardware with this process is far removed from those humble beginnings and is in my opinion much more exciting too.
The first steps of integrating old and new are already being taken. In April the FAA approved the first 3D printed part to be used in aircrafts, a temperature sensor housing that’s pretty obscure but represent a large shift in the industry from making models and prototypes with 3D printers to very much complete parts. GE has already started a push to implement more parts like this, the next on their list is a new fuel nozzle that’s entirely made with this additive process. Normally this would take months to years to get the manufacturing process worked out with several machines and complicated assemblies of multiple pieces but with this advent of rugged 3D printed parts engines are made more efficiently and in much less time.
We are a couple years from manufacturing a full engine with all parts 3D printed for commercial or even private use. While the machines that General Electric are using to make even the most advanced and high end consumer printer envious, this is the first step into a whole new generation of industrial design and manufacturing hopefully allowing more versatility and easy production. It won’t be long before a story like this isn’t news to anyone, ten to twenty years from now this’ll be common practice I’m sure. While many things the 1900’s saw as futuristic tended to fall by the wayside due to popular culture changing and flaws being found. Like using asbestos for textiles and insulation, in the future we may find that 3D printing has major drawbacks in stability and prolonged use.
Here’s an interesting take on the prospects for 3D printed jet engines:
As with any part of technology or science if we don’t push to find new and improve developmental tool and processes we may never know what potential there is in these ideas. These, as with all new things, the more you try to force something without testing extensively the more at risk you are of warding off investors and losing a whole facet of industry due to it being seen as possibly dangerous and shelved indefinitely, General Electric taking their time with these small proofs of concept are definitely the way to go about bringing the future a little closer to the present.