For the last few years GE Aviation has been working on a side project to see if they could successfully manufacture a simple jet engine made entirely out of 3D printed parts. Initially, engineers at the Additive Development Center in Cincinnati were simply curious about just how far they could take their additive manufacturing technology. Pretty far apparently, considering they just fired up this little “side project” and not only did it run without a hitch, but it could be revved up to 33,000 rotations per minute.
The innovative style of 3D printing GE is using is slightly different from the common MakerBot you see in people’s homes. First of all, additive manufacturing uses a laser to melt metal powder, adding layer after layer until eventually a custom part is built up. Then once the printing is completed, excess powder is blown and brushed away and the part is given a finish. This serves a multitude of purposes for this type of project; the most notable being a reduction in wasted material. Rather than cutting a part out of a much larger piece, which results in gratuitous amounts of scrap metal, only the amount of metal powder actually needed is what is used to build the layers. Plus, you have the added benefit of building massively complex parts in the most precise environment possible. This method is called Direct Laser Metal Melting, or DLMM.
The resulting mini jet engine is about the size of a backpack, measuring roughly a foot long and standing eight inches tall. Since the manufacturing technique is so incredibly new and GE has been one of the first in their field to test DLMM methods, the engine was not designed to be used in commercial aircrafts. Besides that, a machine of that size could very well prove too complicated for current 3D printing technology. This little engine is the perfect size to run, say, a remote control model plane though. And more than that, it lent further credence to the notion that 3D printing in the future will be used for far more than printing key fobs or trinkets to attach to your gadgets which are soon thereafter thrown away; it may actually end up being an integral piece of the manufacturing world as we know it.
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