GE steps up the game with its new 3D printer for metal. Could it be used to manufacture airplanes?

Just months after announcing the development of Project ATLAS—or Additive Technology Large Area System—the program has now been unveiled.

“The machine can 3D print aviation parts suitable for making jet engine structural components and parts for single-aisle aircraft,” said Mohammad Ehtheshami, Vice President and General Manager of GE Additive. “It can also be applicable for manufacturers in the automotive, power, and space industries,” he added.  

Ehteshami’s enthusiasm over the program indicates the new 3D printer is a development worth noting.

Specs and Features

GE’s new 3D printer for metal will: use proprietary technology to control powder dosing, print faster than today’s machines, and allow users to customize the amount of lasers required.

GE drew help from the newly acquired company Concept Laser, a German maker of 3D printers for metals. The printer’s new technology and architecture will not only allow users to save powder and cut costs but will also maintain quality and precision while doing so. More specifically, the technology will reduce powder consumption by 69 percent compared to traditional machines, shared Tomas Kellner of GE.

The program uses a 1-kilowatt laser to fuse thin layers of metal powder into printing parts as large as one meter in diameter sent directly from a computer file, added Kellner. Bigger parts can also be built by integrating more lasers.

“Irrespective of industry, every customer has its own specific needs and its own unique levels of complexity. We regularly hear that next generation machines need to be customizable and configurable,” added Ehteshami. The new 3D printer for metal is GE’s response to the feedback indicating that scalable technology is needed to best meet the needs of this evermaturing industry.

According to Michael Molitch-Hou of Engineering.com, the envelope of the new 3D printer for metal is 1,100 x 1,100 x 300 millimeters, making it the largest metal powder bed infusion system, even surpassing GE Additive.

Predix, GE’s cloud-based operating system for the industrial internet, will be monitoring the health of the project, as well as its printing process.

A Brief History

GE Additive’s 3D printer for metal brings innovative developments to an already flourishing industry. Since the late 1980s, the commercial rapid prototyping system, also known as the SLA-1, has been evolving the additive manufacturing industry, and the very first system under $10,000 made it to market in 2007. As of recent years however, 3D printers can now be acquired for under $1,000, becoming more accessible to small companies and even individuals.

3D Printing Revolution

The ever-increasing accessibility has opened up 3D printer technology to a much wider audience, which only adds weight to the fact that 3D printing has been referred to as another Industrial Revolution. The impact this technology is having on the industry is undeniable, and as systems like Project ATLAS continue emerging, the relationship between 3D printing technology and its consumers will continue to evolve.

As for the possibilities that come with the future of additive manufacturing? Everything from car manufacturing to heart surgery are already feeling its impact, and from what Ehtheshami described, aircraft manufacturers would be among the new industries that Project ATLAS could market to. The future is undeniably promising for the 3D printing industry.