Why you should care
Because this technology could one day bring down the cost of healthcare.
OZY and GE are partnering to bring you an inside look into how additive manufacturing is changing the way things are made across industries and across the world.
Jimmie Beacham has a fun job (see the Xbox console hanging from the ceiling of his workstation for evidence). As the chief engineer for advanced manufacturing at GE Healthcare, Beacham gets to play with all of the newest toys in the tech space, from 3D printing to augmented reality to robotics. His mission? Simplify the way we make, well, everything.
One of the most promising technologies he gets to experiment with in his incubator, he says, is 3D printing (aka, additive manufacturing — so called because it makes parts by adding material rather than cutting it away). He says it represents “a whole new ballgame” for industries across the globe and is already bringing down the cost of manufacturing. For example, by 3D-printing specialist equipment used to test biopharmaceuticals — in place of the traditional steel casting method — Beacham says GE Healthcare reduced what had been a $50,000, months-long operation to a handful of days, at a cost of less than $1,000. He’s also clocked the potential for making all manner of equipment in the same space, without the need for expensive tooling.
With additive, if your design isn’t perfect, you fix it and you print it again.
Jimmie Beacham, GE Healthcare
“Changing production from one design to another is as easy as closing and opening a computer file,” he says.
Mainly, though, Beacham is excited by how 3D printing, in tandem with other technologies, can revolutionize design itself.
“When [an engineer has] an idea, we try to get it quickly printed and put it back into their hands,” he explains. “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.”
The lab has lately mastered 3D-printing digital circuits directly onto parts, using a robotic arm to deposit the material onto surfaces. “It completely opens up the design space,” Stephen Crynock, an electronics process engineer at GE Healthcare, affirms. Beacham points to how the lab uses augmented reality to guide workers through different stages of assembly, which also allows constant quality checks throughout the process.
Another win for additive was when Beacham and team decided to try printing a collimator — a gadget that helps X-ray machines and CT scanners filter out unwanted signal noise in order to produce a nice, crisp image. Collimators are typically made from tungsten — good because it’s a high-density material that blocks radiation, but tricky to work with, so that manually assembling just one of these things (about the size of an ice cube tray, but with hundreds of narrow holes) can involve thousands of fiddly operations, including gluing.
It took the team two years to perfect printing it, but the first prototype succeeded in combining hundreds of parts into just two. Though it took years to get to that point, Stephen Abitz, GE Healthcare’s additive process leader, notes: “When you figure it out, it’s much easier to do the next one. You are building off your knowledge and not starting from scratch.” Within nine months of the prototype, they’d printed a collimator that produced an even better picture and was 40 percent cheaper.
Of course, true mass production via 3D printing might be a ways off. The technology is generally still too slow for manufacturing lots of objects (although GE Aviation expects to have 3D-printed 12,000 fuel nozzles for its LEAP jet engine by the end of this year and projects it will have scaled up to 35,000 annually by 2020). Complex, one-off objects can also take much longer than would be ideal; printing a model replica of a specific human organ, which is transforming presurgery planning, can take weeks. But while the answers to these problems are a matter for the future, Beacham is animated about how these new technologies are improving design in the here and now.
“We train our designers and engineers for additive,” he says. “The first thing you have to do is 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.”
He sees the technology as the harbinger for a creative revolution: “Additive manufacturing can liberate designers from the handcuffs they’ve had forever.”
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