Jan 31, 2018 | By Tess

A team of GE engineers says it was able to 3D print and test 30 prototypes of a football-sized jet engine part and realize the final version in just 12 weeks using its game-changing binder jet technology. The company says that the same feat would have taken years using traditional casting processes.

GE's first musings about its incredibly fast metal 3D printing system came in December 2017, when the company released the first photo of its new H1 3D printer prototype. The prototype system, which only took 47 days to build, was inspired by the successful use of binder jet printing for the jet engine part.

Binder jet printing technology uses a binder material to basically glue metal powder particles together into a specific shape and structure. The process is markedly different than laser sintering processes, which use laser-beams to melt a bed of metal powder and fuse layers together until a shape is built up.

Binder jet technology, for its part, deposits a special (and proprietary) binder material onto a levelled bed of metal powder, which causes the metal particles to stick together wherever the glue has been applied. This is repeated layer-by-layer until the desired structure (determined by a 3D model) is complete.

Evidently, depositing a binding agent is less time consuming than sintering metal powder with a laser, as GE claims its binder jet 3D printer is capable of printing “at least 10 times faster” than laser-based systems. Moreover, it is also capable of producing larger parts.

Another key advantage of the new machine—which reportedly only took 47 days to construct—is that it uses less energy than laser-based 3D printers. Arunkumar Natarajan, senior scientist at GE Global Research and the technical lead on the binder jet project, explains: “Instead of firing high-power lasers over a bed of metal powder, we’re depositing a binder glue like ink on paper.”

“We pulled from across the GE Research Lab’s deep material and chemistry expertise to develop a special binder that is core to the success of the process. We’re very excited about the binder jet concept, given the opportunity it provides for faster printing of more parts versus other additive and even conventional manufacturing techniques,” he added.

The only downside to the technology (in comparison to laser 3D printing) is that printed parts require a much thorougher post-processing treatment. That is, because the metal particles are simply glued together, a printed object is still relatively delicate and must be cured in an industrial-grade oven to properly fuse the metal particles together.

Still, Natarajan says that even with the extra post-processing, the technique still has a number of advantages over competing processes and even has the potential to impact the dominant casting industry. “We already have successfully printed several complex metal test parts using this advanced binder jet process,” he said.

GE Additive team holds the 3D printed LEAP engine flowpath component

GE’s recent achievement with the binder jet technology involved 3D printing various (over 30!) prototypes for a component destined for CFM International’s LEAP jet engine. Whereas it took engineers multiple years to design and qualify the original engine part, the new part was designed, iterated, and tested multiple times in just three months using the new 3D printing technology.

“This flowpath component is a difficult part to manufacture due to the strict alloy requirements and complex geometry,” said Ray Martell, a principal engineer at GE Aviation. “A binder jet is capable of meeting these challenges at a significant cost advantage to legacy processes.”

The 3D printed jet engine project was led by Martell and Ken Salas, an additive platform leader at GE Global Research. The results of the program are promising, they say, as they believe it could be easily scaled up for larger part production. GE even claims the binder jet technology could save the LEAP program tens of millions of dollars.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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