Additive manufacturing — what’s commonly known as 3D printing — has technology geeks buzzing about its potential to turn your desk into a mini-factory. It’s actually not as new as you might think -- 3D printing traces its roots back to the 1980s, and it's been the subject of industry research ever since. What effect is it having now on manufacturing in Connecticut?
To some, additive manufacturing promises an economic miracle. “The potential for this is simply enormous. This could be a game changer,” said Peter Gioia of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. And he said for once, that’s good news for our state. “I think Connecticut’s probably a little bit ahead of the game compared to a lot of states in terms of our manufacturers employing this technology.”
The reason for that is the strengths of 3D printing. It’s particularly well adapted to industries which need small runs of custom parts, where design is always evolving and which work rapidly to tight tolerances. Anything spring to mind? Aerospace and medical devices — some of Connecticut’s core industries.
"Pratt and Whitney has, for coming up on 20 years, invested in additive manufacturing," said Joe Sylvestro, head of manufacturing for the East Hartford engine maker. It's been used in aerospace for years to do rapid prototyping, designing a part with software and then printing it out quickly and cheaply to see if the design works.
The holy grail is to use the technology for actual production. "We are bringing through the certification program parts that have been manufactured in that way," Sylvestro said. "As we get to the end of this year and early next year, they’ll be in production. We’re not just talking about developing parts and doing additional work with additive manufacturing. We’re doing it — it’s done."
One of the ways Pratt and Whitney has been able to get to this stage is by sponsoring lots of research into the technology. Last year the company sank $8 million into a new additive manufacturing innovation center at UConn.
One of the researchers using that facility is mechanical engineering professor, Dr. Leila Ladani. On a visit to her lab, she showed me some parts made in the center. “These are parts that are built using the technology," she said. "I’ll show you what, when we say layers, what we mean."
When you build metal parts with 3D printing, a small layer of powdered metal, often titanium, is laid down according to the design, and then melted with a spot laser. Then another layer is added on top and also melted, and so on until the shape is complete. That’s why it’s radically different from traditional subtractive techniques like machining, where you take a block of metal and cut or drill away at it until you make the shape of the part. "The layers are built from bottom to top through the thickness," Ladani said. "if you look under the microscope you can see ridges."
Additive manufacturing has huge benefits over other methods because its possible to build larger and more complex parts in a single piece, without welds or screws, but that doesn’t mean it’s infallible. Those microscopic ridges produce surface roughness, which can cause problems for moving parts. Occasionally the powdered metal isn’t melted evenly, or perhaps the successive layers don’t adhere to one another perfectly. Predicting, testing and correcting these types of failures is the subject of Ladani’s research. “In terms of the general status of the technology, I think there’s a lot of room for improvement,” she said.
While Ladani said it will be a long time until we see 3D printing used in mass production of relatively cheap items like semiconductors, she does believes it represents a huge opportunity for the type of high value manufacturing that this state specializes in. "In terms of design," she said, "I think it could be revolutionary. It liberates the designers from the traditional manufacturing limitations such as machining."
Medical device makers in the state are already harnessing that quality to create things like custom bio implants that can be precisely designed to fit an individual patient. The technology is also reaching down into smaller manufacturers through initiatives such as the Connecticut Center for Advanced Technology.
Bob Torrani is director of CCAT’s advanced manufacturing center, which makes expensive technologies available to companies that want to use them for development, or to redesign their manufacturing processes. He showed me a high-end plastic printer that's just been installed. "What’s unique about this is the size of the parts you can make," he said. "Most of the printers are pretty small. This one has a 21-inch workspace, so you can make rather large parts. Also,the resolution of the materials -- you can deposit down to a thousandth of an inch, and you can also blend four different materials as you’re building the part."
The center also houses metal 3D printers. Torrani said he sees other new developments ahead. "We think the real use for this technology, beyond making parts from scratch, is going to be repair of high value parts," he said. "The maintenance of engines, or gas turbines or whatever, is an important factor, and repairing parts with powdered metal deposition is a big opportunity in the future."
That's something even NASA has noticed. It’s sending a 3D printer to the International Space Station next month to test the technology in orbit.