Jet Bracket Wins Worldwide 3-D Printing Design Contest
There are so many reasons why 3-D printing is capturing the world's imagination that one of the big advantages is sometimes overlooked – it can be good for the environment.
Factories can now 3-D print precise parts using high-tech materials on site, instead of waiting for deliveries. Consumers are intrigued by the idea of building products in their own homes – the first 3-D home items tended to be toys and trinkets – but even now it's possible to print items such as hard-to-get car parts. The medical world has jumped aboard because 3-D printing can produce everything from prosthetics to false teeth.
It's not just the shortened delivery time that helps save energy, though. The products themselves that are 3-D printed can help reduce energy and greenhouse gas-causing carbon emissions.
This is what M Arie Kurniawan, co-founder an industrial design firm called Dtech-Engineering in Salatiga, Indonesia, demonstrated, when he designed a 3-D printabable jet engine bracket that can save thousands of dollars of fuel – and a lot of emissions.
Mr. Kurniawan's engine bracket won an international contest, the 3D Printing Design Quest. Launched by GE and the open engineering community GrabCAD, it comes with a small prize of $7,000 (U.S.), but a lot of promise, prestige and practical possibilities.
The quest challenged engineers around the world last year to come up with a new bracket that would be 30 per cent lighter than existing brackets, which attach to the outside of jet engines that can weigh nearly 4.3 tonnes. Reducing the weight of an airliner by just 1 kilogram can save about $3,000 worth of fuel a year, and also reduce carbon emissions.
Manufacturers and maintenance crews use these brackets to hold and manipulate engines. They need to support the engine and they can't break or warp, yet they must stay attached during flight, so every gram counts. The reimagined bracket had to still be strong and stiff enough to handle the load.
They key word in this contest was "reimagine" – it wasn't simply a matter of tinkering with an existing engineering plan. Reimagining is a way to leverage ideas, finding a path from dreams and "what ifs" directly to application in the real world. It is cost-efficient; GE's Ecomagination initiative, in place since 2005, generated $25-billion (U.S.) in revenue in 2012 on an investment of $2-billion.
Contests like the 3D Printing Design Quest encourage thinkers and researchers to put their inspiration into action. Mr. Kurniawan beat participants from 56 countries who submitted nearly 700 bracket designs. He based his bracket on an H-beam design that could be 3-D-printed. H-beams can handle both vertical and horizontal loads.
Even though it's becoming more widespread, 3-D printing is still hard for many people to understand It's changing the world, but it's not simply a matter of pressing the print button. For Mr. Kurniawan's firm, it starts with 3-D rendering – using advanced design technology to show what a finished product such as a bracket will look like from all conceivable angles and vantage points.
Right now 3-D printing is restricted by the size of the printers that can be built. A lot of focus has been placed on units that can produce smaller parts and bring additive manufacturing to mid-sized firms, but experts are already working on printers that could be large enough to build composite airplane wings, 3-D printing titanium components right onto the wings' structure.
"3-D rendering is the greatest and cheapest way to test the market interest or investor interest regarding a new product or new invention. You will be able to see what your product will look like," Mr. Kurniawan says.
One important outcome from the 3D Printing Design Quest was that the design could actually be 3-D printed today. Kurniawan's design was chosen among 10 to be manufactured by GE workers at the company's additive manufacturing plant in Cincinnati. They made all 10 out of a titanium alloy on a machine called a direct laser-melting machine, which uses a laser to fuse metal powder into the final shape, according to the design.
Kurniawan's design had the best combination of stiffness and lightness. All of the brackets were sent to GE Global Research in New York State for "destruction testing" – testing the axial load of the bracket with up to two tonnes of pressure. (Put your left hand in a vertical position, and make a "T" with your right hand on top and push down. The pressure on your upright left hand is the axial load.)
One failed; Kurniawan's and eight others went on to a torque test, where each bracket was exposed to torque of 5,000 inch pounds (565 Newton metres). Jet engine brackets are not particularly heavy in the first place, given the stress they withstand. Contestants were asked to improve the weight of 2.033 kilograms by 30 per cent. Kurniawan's design beat this by 84 per cent, weighing in at 327 grams.
"3-D printing will be available for everyone in the very near future," Kurniawan says. "That's why I want to be familiar with additive manufacturing as soon as possible."
"We believe additive manufacturing methods like 3-D printing will be pervasive," says Michael Idelchik, who runs GE's advanced technologies research. "We already know it can be done. But now we have to get the people with the right talents to embrace it and create an ecosystem of designers, suppliers and materials scientists."
That's what GrabCAD does. It's a worldwide online community of engineers from companies large and small (like Kurniawan's), who apply their collective ideas and experience to solving design problems. GrabCAD invites companies to issue global challenges to engineers, which people like Kurniawan are glad to pick up.
3-D printing is already capable of making anything from children's figurines to musical instruments to medical models that surgeons can use to plan operations. GE Aviation is testing 3-D-printed fuel nozzles inside jet engines mounted on test stands in Ohio and Winnipeg. And researchers in Filton, England, have been working on that 3-D printed airplane wing.
While a contest with a $7,000 prize might seem small, the potential it brings is huge.
"You need almost an artistic approach to design, the ability to model and analyze structures and also the knowledge to pick the right materials and the correct manufacturing equipment," says Idelchik. "There's a lot that goes into the mix, and collaboration is the perfect tool for finding the best solution."
For more innovation insights, visit www.gereports.ca
This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's advertising department, in consultation with GE. The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.