Powder to the People: A 3D printing incubator is liberating engineers

Hailing from the Outer Banks, a long, sandy necklace of islands hanging from North Carolina’s Atlantic coast, Jimmie Beacham knows something about witnessing history. When his grandfather, John, was a small boy, he watched one of the Wright brothers’ first attempts at flight in nearby Kitty Hawk, a feat that ultimately ended up changing how we live. Now Beacham himself is in the vanguard of a revolution, one that is changing how we design and make things. It’s called additive manufacturing, which includes technologies like 3D printing.

As chief engineer for advanced manufacturing at GE Healthcare, Beacham, 43, is in charge of a futuristic laboratory in Waukesha, Wisconsin. His team of a dozen engineers is helping 70 GE factories sprinkled around world explore 3D printing, augmented reality, robotics, big data and other software and technologies. But it’s their convergence that really gets him excited. “This is a whole new ballgame,” he says. “For example, we can use robots to print sensors on machine parts and then analyse the data they produce to make them work better.”

The work Beacham and his team are doing here could lead to better medical imaging technologies and more productive factory workers. It could also yield a new generation of designers and engineers. “We train them for additive,” Beacham says. “The first thing you have to do is to un-program the last 20 years, when they were getting their hands slapped, being told that their product features were impossible to make with traditional ‘subtractive’ machining. You have to help change their mindset, encourage them to think freely and tell them ‘Hey, now you can try all the things that you’ve always wanted to do.’”

Beacham, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina State University, can relate. “When I was in college, I never heard the words additive or 3D printing,” he says. He first encountered the process in the early 2000s, when he ordered a part 3D printed from plastic from a website. But he was underwhelmed. “I thought ‘Oh, this is just a gimmicky toy, ‘” he recalls. But in 2010 he went to a symposium at GE Global Research and someone handed him an actual machine part 3D printed from metal. “It all just connected,” he says. “I thought ‘Holy cow, this is real. We’ve got to figure out how we take advantage of this.’”

Unlike traditional manufacturing, 3D printing binds together hair-thin layers of a material to grow parts directly from digital drawings. These technologies are called “additive” because they add material to the part rather than cut it away. They allow designers to come up with shapes that were previously difficult or impossible to make. Beyond the cost of the additive machine itself, there is no need for expensive tooling. “Changing production from one design to another is as easy as closing and opening a computer file,” Beacham says. “Additive manufacturing can liberate designers from the handcuffs they’ve had forever.”

A 3D-printed model of a human liver based on an image acquired by a CT scanner. GE engineers are looking for ways to convert data from GE Healthcare’s imaging machines into digital files that can be printed. The models could one day help doctors prepare better for surgery.

The lab, called the Advanced Manufacturing & Engineering Center, opened a little over two years ago on the ground floor of GE Healthcare’s headquarters. But Beacham’s business isn’t the only GE unit pursuing progress in the space. GE’s Aviation, Power and Oil & Gas businesses have already started printing fuel nozzles and other components. Last year, GE acquired majority stakes in Arcam AB and Concept Laser, two European manufacturers of 3D-printing machines, and launched a new business called GE Additive. GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt believes that additive manufacturing represented a $75 billion opportunity.

An Arcam machine inside GE’s Center for Additive Technologies Advancement (CATA) in Pittsburgh. Image credit: Mark Trent for GE Reports. Top: A direct write printer in Waukesha. The machine can print electronic circuits onto machine parts.

The first opportunity Beacham and his team at GE Healthcare saw looked like an alien honeycomb with hundreds of narrow holes. It’s called a collimator, and it allows X-ray and CT scanners to filter out unwanted signal noise and helps keep the image crisp.

Collimators are typically made from tungsten, a brittle, high-density material which, like lead, blocks radiation. It is so difficult to work with that the manual assembly process for the ice tray-sized component involves thousands of operations including gluing. “This was rich hunting grounds to leverage additive,” Beacham says.

But it wasn’t an easy hunt. For starters, Beacham and his engineers first had to put their entrepreneurial spirit to work, negotiating with a company making 3D printers to borrow a machine and bring it inside the 10,000-square-foot lab. Beginning in 2013, they worked closely with their colleagues at GE Global Research to tweak the machine’s operations and the laser system and perfect the secret sauce that enabled them to weld together fine layers of tungsten powder.

Two years later, they’d made enough progress to make the first prototype, which combined hundreds of parts into just two Nine months after that, they were able to tweak the design to produce even better image quality and lower the cost of the part by 40 percent. “When you figure it out, it’s much easier to do the next one,” says GE Healthcare Additive Process Leader Stephen Abitz, who was in charge of the development. “You are building off your knowledge and not starting from scratch.” Abitz’s latest new tungsten prototype took just weeks to design and print.

GE Healthcare’s Stephen Abitz is holding a test sample used to develop the tungsten collimator.

But the collimator is only one example. Not far from the tungsten printer, a pair of engineers are working with a futuristic machine capable of writing silver or other metallic glyphs on parts for ultrasound machines and other healthcare equipment. GE Healthcare spends many millions of dollars every year on cables. The glyphs, which are really electronic circuits for wireless antennas, RFID tags and other sensors, will enable the company to cut many of these costs in the future. The machine, called the direct write printer, mixes nitrogen gas with droplets of copper, silver, gold and semiconductor “inks” until they form an aerosol. The printer then uses a jet to deposit the substance on metal, fabric and even paper. Stephen Crynock and Craig Mirr, the GE Healthcare electronics process engineers experimenting with the machine, can also connect the printing jet to a robotic arm to deposit material on 3D surfaces. “It opens up the design space,” Crynock says.

Stephen Crynock (right) and Craig Mirr are inspecting a circuit made on their direct write printer.

Additive manufacturing could also revolutionise new drug development. Beacham’s team is using yet another set of machines to print highly customised injection molds. GE Healthcare Life Sciences is exploring how to use the molds and other printing techniques to quickly develop custom parts of chromatography columns, pieces of equipment that pharmaceutical companies use to filter out the right proteins and RNA from bioreactors for a new class of powerful drugs called biopharmaceuticals. Doctors use these drugs to treat diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

To make the chromatography columns, which to the layman resemble giant French press coffee makers, workers at the Life Sciences unit typically use molds made from steel that can require external suppliers, take months to produce and cost as much as $50,000 each. The 3D-printed variant takes just a few days to produce and costs less than $1,000. “During drug discovery, pharma companies are using customised columns to capture a small amount of the proteins they need to prove that the drugs work,” Beacham says. “3D printing changes the equation. We can now help customers translate their discoveries and form long relationships with them.”

Beacham’s team also works with GE’s Center for Additive Technology Advancement in Pittsburgh, where engineers can print larger format tools on a binder jet. This 3D printer sprays an adhesive on layers of sand and can print molds that weigh hundreds of pounds, a process that typically would take weeks and require external machining or the of purchase of expensive permanent tools. They can now send the 3D-printed form to a foundry and cast the part, helping increase speed and efficiency. GE has already used this technology to cast parts for next-generation MRI machines and also for Pristina, a new mammography machine developed in France.

Beacham likes to bring GE engineers, customers and even students to the lab and share with them a “taste of the new freedom” that spans from manufacturing to design. “When they have an idea, we try to get it quickly printed and put it back into their hands,” Beacham says. “Once they see the speed, they realize that it’s OK to fail. That’s another big part of this equation. With additive, if your design isn’t perfect, you fix it and you print it again. You can go through several design iterations in a single week. That’s never been possible before.”

It took the Wright brothers a decade tinkering in their bike shop to finally make their flyer glide. Beacham’s lab would blow their minds.

Members of the Beacham family are no strangers to breakthroughs. Jimmy Beacham’s great-grandfather William T. Beacham (second from left), grandfather John L. Beacham Sr. (the small boy holding his hand) and their dog, Bounce, witnessed one of the Wright brothers’ early flights in Kitty Hawk. Image credit: U.S. Coast Guard.


This story originally appeared on the U.S. edition of GE Reports.

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