We’ve talked about rapid prototyping before, 3D printing of intricate parts from various types of plastic or, in some cases, from metal where the durability of the finished product isn’t an issue. If only they could print production ready parts for manufactured items the potential of the process would be unleashed. Looks like we’re just about there as GE and EADS, a European aerospace company, are working on making real production ready pieces.
Although you can make almost anything with various castings along with technology like 5 axis milling, sometimes the ideal design gives way to what is reasonable due to the time and difficulty, especially if you need lots of parts. There are even some parts so intricate you could call their production pretty much impossible unless you could print them.
GE manufactures transducers for ultrasound machines:
These transducers are made up of thousands of tiny columns spaced just 30 to 40 micrometers apart, with each column being extremely thin, about eight to 10 times taller than they are wide. It’s extremely difficult to make such parts using casting, since it’s hard to free the part from the mold. So GE makes them using a precise cutting tool that very slowly carves away at a chunk of ceramic. The process is slow and expensive and can only be used to make a limited range of shapes.
Now they’ve developed a process for printing these transducers which opens up possibilities for even more complex shapes allowing designers to create what they really want instead of what manufacturing previously allowed.
EADS is testing the printing of hinges for aircraft engine covers:
Using this technique, EADS has printed metal hinges for engine covers: the hinges allow the covers to swing open for engine maintenance. The parts have intricate shapes that maintain strength while cutting the weight of the part in half. The new hinge has been put through the tests used for conventional parts and shown to meet performance requirements.
Though some metal parts may never be candidates for this type of production due to the need to control the properties of the metal itself to prevent failure, if even a small percentage of parts can make the leap to 3D printing, it could open design possibilities to a far greater degree than current processes allow.
Ever since seeing the first crude 3D prints, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of using rapid prototyping for making production ready parts, but it’s been a long wait for all of the reasons you would imagine, manufacturing tolerances and material strength just to name the most obvious. But if these current efforts make the grade, just think of what we may be able to do as designers and engineers begin to think further outside the box. Neat stuff!