Polymer Printing to Take Flight?

Future airplanes may have 3D-printed polymer parts
Future airplanes may have 3D-printed polymer parts.

Shove some polymer into a cartridge, hit “print,” and, voila, you have a part of an airplane in your hands. That is the vision GE and EADS, a European defense and aerospace company, that are pursuing to make parts that work better and cost less to produce.

Printing 3D objects has been around for a while and has been applied to a diverse range of applications ranging from medical to art. But as energy editor Kevin Bullis reports in the MIT Technology Review, the technology has improved to the point where printers can make detailed objects out of durable materials with fine resolution. So companies such as GE and EADS have partnered to see if they can apply 3D printing to conventional manufacturing to make many copies of the same part.

GE has come up with its own printing technology to combine ceramics and polymers. Bullis describes it:

Now GE has developed a new printing technology that spreads out a thin layer of a slurry composed of ceramic embedded in a polymer precursor. When a pattern of ultraviolet light is projected on this layer, the material solidifies only where it’s been exposed to the light. Another layer of slurry is spread out on top of this and flashed with light, and the structure is built up in this way, layer by layer.

The process is still not ready for mass production, says Prabhjot Singh, a mechanical engineer and project manager at GE Research. But because the process is faster and saves material, ‘it could achieve orders of magnitude reduction in cost,’ he says. GE designers using the new process could improve the performance of the transducer because they won’t be as constrained in the types of shapes they can make.

GE has been using the technology to make ultrasound machines. But with EADS, they are also looking into making some airplane parts. EADS has figured out how to print metal to make hinges.

Bullis cautions the technology is still at the infant stages. So far, GE plans to use its new printing technique to test designs and not actually use the parts in working machines. The other problem with the technology is the size of the objects a printer can spit out. With the current technology, researchers can print objects that are few centimeters across to almost a meter. But you’re not going to see entire airplane wings rolling out of the printers.

You can see images of the technique here.

Source: “GE and EADS to Print Parts for Airplanes,” MIT Technology Review, 05/09/11
Source: “3-D printers may someday allow labs to create replacement human organs,” The Washington Post, 05/09/11
Source: “3-D Art for All: Ready to Print,” The New York Times, 05/13/11
Image by MarinaAvila, used under its Creative Commons license.

Rajendrani "Raj" Mukhopadhyay is a science writer and editor who contributes news stories and feature articles on scientific advances to a variety of magazines. Raj holds Ph.D. in biophysics from Johns Hopkins University.