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Honey, I 3-D Printed the Kids: Additive Manufacturing Comes of Age

Tue, 12/03/2013 - 5:45am
General Electric

Isky Kanso-Robertson and his sister, Sofia, are getting scanned for their 3D printed sculpture.On a recent cold afternoon in New York, a young couple with two small children in tow stepped off a busy sidewalk at Manhattan’s Columbus Circle into the quiet modernist home of the city’s Museum of Art and Design. Soon, Sofia Kanso-Robertson, 6, and her brother Iskander, 2, were slowly spinning on a low round platform inside a makeshift 3-D scanner made from a Kinect camera tied to a yellow rope.

A technician from the 3-D printing company Shapeways was sitting close by behind a laptop. She was pulling the rope and moving the digital camera up and down a thin metal pole, capturing a revolving image of the kids and plugging the data into body-mapping software.

After the scan, which took about a minute, the siblings surveyed a selection of materials for their image ranging from plastic to metal. They settled on brass and a week later a miniature 3-D printed version of themselves arrived at their home. “We went in because I was loosely aware of the medium of 3-D printing,” said their father, Andrew Robertson. “But Sofia understood exactly what was going on. She has no barriers or locked-in concepts of what is and isn’t possible. 3-D printing? Why not!”

Like Sofia, 3-D printing is growing up fast. The interactive workshop is part of an exhibit called “Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital,” a snapshot of the 3-D printing landscape spread over three floors at the museum. There are many whimsical, practical, serious and artistic examples of digital fabrication on display. They run from a 3-D-printed evening gown, high-heeled shoes and underwear, to a black skeletal frame for a tricycle racer based on a bionic jaw bone and a sculpture of an artist’s breast cancer tumor created from her own digitized MRI scan. The museum’s curator Ronald Labaco says that such designs are now possible “because software has become advanced enough to replicate natural patterns, while manufacturing techniques like 3D printing allow designers to create almost any shape much faster than traditional processes had allowed before.”

3-D printing is an area where art, life and industry inspire each other. Consider that the next-generation LEAP jet engine manufactured by CFM International, a joint venture between GE and France’s Snecma (Safran), has 19 fuel nozzles 3-D printed from a cobalt-chromium alloy similar to materials used in hip and dental implants. The new nozzle is 25 percent lighter and as much as five times more durable than the current nozzle, which must be assembled from 20 different parts. GE Aviation engineers are already testing the first LEAP engine in Ohio.

Their colleagues at GE Power & Water are experimenting with printing parts for massive gas turbines used for generating electricity. The technology will help them test new ideas and designs faster. “We’ve got to spread the word and change the design paradigm that metallurgists, designers and manufacturing teams have had for a long time,” says Jon Schaeffer, senior manager for materials and processing engineering for GE Power & Water. “We are cutting out months in the development cycle with this technology.”

Some 3-D printing machines extrude and deposit one layer of molten material like plastic or resin on top of another. Others are using electron and laser beams to melt alloy powder into the final shape. Most recently, scientist at GE Global Research started testing 3-D painting, a new method that shoots at precise 3-D models a thin jet of metal powder flying as fast as four times the speed of sound. The technology can produce and repair jet engine blades, rotors and other components without resorting to machining or welding. “This additive technology is like a fountain of youth for machine parts,” says Anteneh Kebbede, manager of the coatings and surface lab at the GRC.

“Imagine being able to restore an aging part to its original condition with a tool that looks like spray gun.”

If things keep up, by the time Sofia Kanso-Roberston and her brother will be college, Kebbede’s bold vision may be in their father’s garage.

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