NISKAYUNA — General Electric researchers will lead an effort to develop ways to replace aging U.S. Navy ship and plane components with new ones fabricated by laser printers under a $9 million contract GE announced this week.
Much of GE’s work on the project will be done at the Niskayuna headquarters of GE Global Research, which already has laboratories working on the rapidly growing field of additive technology.
Additive uses 3-D laser printers to turn metal powder into solid metal objects. The process can create shapes so intricate and detailed that traditional manufacturing techniques would be unable to replicate them, or be able to do so only at great cost in time and money.
The Navy is looking to replicate parts that were made by manufacturers that no longer exist with blueprints that may be impossible to find.
Physicist Steven Duclos, one of additive technology leaders at Global Research in Niskayuna, said the task here is twofold: Develop a way to create a precise blueprint of the component, then fabricate a stress-resistant replacement from metal power.
Both tasks are equally important, he said: The part has to be exactly right and strong enough not to fail in a combat situation.
“Going back and finding the actual drawings for these things is almost impossible,” Duclos said.
Along with complexity and speed, the promise of additive manufacturing is that it can be done without extensive retooling and setup: The design is programmed into the computer and the same laser printer that just made something totally different goes to work on it.
“It allows you to make onesies and twosies,” he said.
Duclos has worked at Global Research for 26 years and risen to the rank of chief scientist. He began working extensively with additive technology five years ago.
General Electric has been investing heavily in the field, and reaping dividends in the form of innovations such as better jet engines.
The Navy has a strong interest in additive technology as well, Duclos said, for similar reasons. “All of these things are built of thousands of components.”
Global Research spokesman Todd Alhart said speeding up the process is another goal of the Navy contract. It can take a year or longer to design, fabricate and certify a new replacement part with conventional techniques he said. The goal is to cut that down to a period of weeks.
The four-year contract awarded by the Office of Naval Research is worth $9 million. GE Global Research is taking the lead on the project. Its project leaders are principal engineer Ade Makinde and lead engineer Justin Gambone.
Joining Global Research are GE Aviation, GE Additive, Honeywell, Penn State, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Navy Nuclear Lab and the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining.
Alhart said the program will occur in two two-year phases. Phase 1 will focus on the underlying software and hardware developments. In Phase 2, GE will build a complete additive system that demonstrates the rapid creation of a part using a 3D Direct Metal Laser Melting printer.
Similar techniques are already used in the automotive industry, to replicate parts no longer in production for older vehicles. But the Navy needs to work to higher potential stresses and tighter tolerances.