The Additive Development Center (ADC)
Located at the end of an unassuming industrial cul-de-sac, GE Aviation's Additive Development Center—formerly Morris Technologies—is the proving grounds for GE's expansive, expanding 3-D printing vision.
LEAP Fuel Nozzle
ADC's first challenge was to prove out an effective design for this fuel nozzle, which will be featured in the LEAP jet engine by 2016. By 2020, GE expects to print 30,000 to 40,000 of these nozzles per year.
The first stop on the ADC tour lands us in the 3-D production / prototype lab, which is exactly the kind of clean, high tech atmosphere you'd expect from a 3-D printing shop. Here, Greg Morris, founder and CEO of Morris Technologies, stands before an EOSINT M270 laser-sintering system—one of a row of metal printers churning out parts in the lab.
The EOSINT printers—here seen growing test parts composed of 20 micron thin layer of powdered metal—are designed to produce prototypes and end products from a variety of metals.
EOS provided Morris Technologies' first metal printer—one of the first delivered to any company in the U.S.—back in 2003. The experience Morris engineers have earned tinkering with these machines in the 11 years since, has made ADC one of the best print shops in the world.
Joining the metal printers in the lab is a Connex 500 high-end prototyping printer from Objet (now Stratasys). This machine grows complex, rugged plastic parts from hundreds of different materials of varying stiffness and colors—an essential first step in ADC projects.
The Connex builds up "Leading Edge" two-tone hard plastic pieces, one micro-thin layer at a time.
Around the corner form the production lab, engineers experiment with giant machines like this Concept Laser M2 cusing machine in ADC's cramped R&D center.
The M2's oxygen-free build chamber is designed to print titanium parts, making it a handy tool for aerospace printing.
However, to meet the standards of the industry, all new machines—just like new parts—must be thoroughly tested and vetted here before they can begin production. That is one of many critical roles the ADC has taken on in the project.
A giant Fortus 900 MC printer from Stratasys joins the M2 in the R&D lab, where it produces high-strength, high-detail production quality plastic end-use parts and prototypes.
The Shop Floor
The ADC's printing and R&D labs are every bit as futuristic and high tech as you'd expect form such a 21st century facility. Out on the production floor, however, it is a different story.
For every 21st century additive machine in the facility, there is a 20th century subtractive machine nearby to mill, grind, tool and polish the pieces into aerospace specs. The result is an odd, dizzying juxtaposition of not just technologies, but whole manufacturing epochs.
Hand Tooling in the Digital Age
Just a few steps away from the clean, automated printing lab, Stan Larsgaard, senior engineering technician, removes metal supports from a printed component, painstakingly tooling each piece with a hammer and chisel.
Larsgaard, like most of the production staff at the ADC, has a fine arts background, which is one of the assets that helped make Morris Technologies such a leader in the field.
In addition to the hand crafters like Larsgaard, traditional machine tools take over a lot of the post-production work. Any finished piece that comes out of the ADC is touched by both the additive and subtractive elements of the business.
One of the only 3-D printers on the production floor is the ARCAM A2X, which produces titanium alloy pieces that require high-melting temperatures.
The Messy Side of 3-D Printing
Removing excess titanium powder from parts printed in the ARCAM requires a blasting process that seem right at home on the dirty shop floor. The result is a surprisingly dirty, surprisingly industrial feel to the process. And that is surprisingly reassuring when considering where these pieces will end up.
Here, a batch of printed titanium GE orbs get blasted with a titanium powder after printing. Once the excess powder is removed, each ball will fall free from the bunch and the titanium dust will be recycled for the next part.
A cleaned GE ball shows the intricate details the ARCAM machine is capable of producing.
A New GE
Together, the two sides of the Additive Development Center—the old-school industrial side and the new-school high tech side—can build some breathtaking pieces.
This GE plaque—the centerpiece of the collection of printed pieces on display at the ADC—is composed of printed metal composites, polished to a mirror finish.
Like the shining engine pieces that flank it on the shelf, it is a piece that matches, even surpasses the quality and capability of any traditional process alone. Or that of any additive process alone, for that matter.
It stands as an apt marker for the new GE and the new manufacturing industry this center is helping to create.