For many people who have noticed the growing hype surrounding 3D printing, the abilities of the technology comes as a surprise. 3D printing in its current form was invented back in the 1980s; but only in recent years has it taken the world of business by storm.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, involves the use of UV light to print layers of melted materials (from plastic to nylon) on top of one another, thus creating a 3D product derived from a computer-generated design. It is an extremely efficient and rapid way to create a wide range of products.
Among the companies taking advantage of this ground-breaking technology is GE (General Electricity), a company that has enjoyed great success since its decision to employ 3D printing. GE is showing the world that 3D printing can be used for much more than just everyday products — and the company is impressing the markets, shareholders and consumers.
Indeed, what makes GE’s use of 3D printing notable is the scale on which it is employing the technology, as well as the complexity and importance of the parts being produced — from aircraft components, to jet engine nozzle interiors and more.
Perhaps the biggest demonstration of the power of 3D printing is GE’s investment in an Auburn-based $100 million additive manufacturing facility. Terry Wohlers, founder of 3D printing company Wohlers Associates, stated that this move “changes everything and it’s also unprecedented.” Over the next three years, the company plans to triple its current 70-strong 3D printing workforce at what is the world’s first 3D printing factory.
GE’s production of fuel nozzle interiors provides a good example of how useful 3D printing can be in manufacturing. Destined for the engines of the ground-breaking LEAP jet, these nozzle interiors would normally consist of 20 parts, which would then have to be fused together before being used. However, with 3D printing this component can be produced as a whole, severely reducing production time.
GE vice-chairman Dan Heintzelman has been outspoken about the importance of 3D printing to GE’s ability to thrive now and in the future. “It is how we will compete and win in the future,” he said. “We can more efficiently build and invent products for our customers, while driving better margins for our investors.”
It is not just through rhetoric that GE is getting behind 3D printing innovation, either. The company has recently managed, with the help of a very talented Indonesian student, to invent an aircraft part that is 83 percent lighter but still in line with safety requirements.
With millions embracing 3D printing as a dynamic and efficient technology, the disadvantages are often overlooked. 3D printing is extremely energy hungry, and can use up to 100 times more electricity than traditional methods. This is largely due to its use of lasers to melt various materials. Home 3D printers have also been likened to a burning cigarette, with the health ramifications a constant source of debate.
Looking at the example of GE, though, it appears that 3D printing is set to become a big part of businesses both large and small. For investors, market leaders and start-ups that presents a huge opportunity for disruptive growth; following the likes of GE to innovate faster than competitors.