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3D Breaks Out of Prototyping and Into Full-Scale Manufacturing of Jet Engine Parts

Remember when it was cool to make a 3D printed keychain? Well, those days are gone. 3D manufacturing has achieved a major shift in its lifecycle: it is now scalable.This means that companies large and small are going beyond simple prototyping and are now using 3D for complete production runs.

Wohlers Associates, Inc., an additive manufacturing consultancy, says 34.7% of the global market for additive manufacturing is now devoted to making parts for final products as opposed to prototyping, molding and various types of tooling. That’s up from just 4.0% in 2003.

Use of 3D to make production parts passed the $1 billion mark globally in 2013 with about 38% of that activity being in the United States. “We are seeing companies push the limits of additive manufacturing to new levels and apply the technology in entirely new ways,” says Terry Wohlers, president of the Colorado-based firm.

Aerospace contractor Pratt & Whitney, which has been honing its 3D capability for 25 years, says it is now ready to place dozens of 3D-manufactured titanium and nickel parts on its PurePower Geared Turbofan jet engines. Engines with the additively-manufactured parts, including fuel bypass manifolds, mounts, fittings, brackets, oil nozzles and airfoils, have been flight tested and will power Airbus and Bombardier aircraft entering passenger service in the second half of 2015.

Pratt & Whitney’s Lynn Gambill (Chief Engineer, Manufacturing and Engineering) will lead a discussion on “What’s Next in Additive Printing: Implications of New Technologies, Materials, Processes and Economics,” at Chief Executive’s 2015 Smart Manufacturing Summit, on April 29-30 in Indianapolis.

In the medical field, Oxford Performance Materials uses 3D manufacturing to make custom pieces of the human cranium out of high-performance plastic for patients with  head injuries. In the dental field, Align Technologies, a $660 million-a-year company, uses 3D to create invisible plastic spacers that are customized to each individual’s set of teeth. In other dental settings, patients can watch an implant tooth be printed before their eyes.

Clearly, 3D has crossed the tipping point, and is now a viable technology for all CEOs to consider. For those getting started, here are 4 ways to jumpstart your 3D efforts.

  1. Take a personal interest in 3D technologies that might be relevant to your business. Tap consultants, go to trade shows, visit potential suppliers and, in general, demonstrate to your organization that you’re serious. Learn enough to challenge other executives and get them out of their comfort zones.
  2. Seek internal champions to help push 3D and give them the time and resources to explore the new technologies.
  3. If internal champions are not available, turn to consultants, university programs and government programs like America Works or Ohio’s Third Frontier program to introduce new ideas into your company and convince internal constituents that 3D can be transformative. This process is called “open innovation.”
  4. Build up the skill sets of your key employees, including engineers and machine operators, by encouraging them to take courses at community colleges or other entities that offer 3D training.

CEOs who get the formula right can transform their businesses or create entirely new ones.


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