3D printing on display in Pittsburgh

| Wednesday, June 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Fuel nozzles for a next-generation jet engine and a hip implant might seem like an odd pairing, but they have more in common than you think: Both are being created today for real world use on a printer.

The technology, known as 3D printing or additive manufacturing, is on display in Pittsburgh this week at one of the biggest gatherings for the booming industry.

3D printing has been around for decades, but is generating a lot of buzz these days because of its potential and some of the innovative uses of the technology, such as creating parts for aircraft and artificial medical implants.

“The reality is we can make some aircraft parts, hip replacement and dental implants,” said Terry Wohlers, who follows the 3D printing industry, “But mostly 3D printing is used commercially for prototypes of parts” that are then mass produced in traditional ways.

Some of the wares were on display Tuesday at RAPID 2013, a conference focusing on the 3D printing industry at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, which runs until Thursday.

3D printing is the process of creating solid objects from a computer file by printing thin layers of plastic or metal one on top of another. A 3D printer looks and operates like an ink-jet printer used at home — on steroids.

Although the 3D printing industry is booming, it still has a long way to go, experts said. But companies and researchers are working on it.

• At General Electric Aviation, the fuel nozzles for jet engines are being manufactured with 3D printing, said Greg Morris of GE Aviation. Each engine has 19 nozzles, and thousands will be made, he said. GE acquired Morris Technologies and a related company Rapid Manufacturing Inc. both near Cincinnati, adding 3D printing technology to its capabilities.

• Medical and dental implants made totally or partially by 3D printing technology are used every day, said Andrew Christensen, president of Medical Modeling Inc. of Golden, Colo. They range from a pelvis, hip and shoulder implants to spine and trachia implants, cranial plates and knee caps. But the costs of the machines and materials used to make them stand in the way of wider use.

• Manufacturers like Mine Safety Appliances Inc. in O'Hara are testing ways to use 3D printing, said David Demyan, MSA's point man on 3D printing. But one size doesn't fit all, as 3D printing technologies proliferate. “I ask 13 questions that guide you to the right technology,” he said. Do you want speed or precision; color or a particular material? Which vendor to use?

The holy grail of the 3D printing industry may take 10 to 15 years to achieve, said experts at the conference.

The industry's holy grail is variously described as producing a part without using a secondary process to polish or finish the surface. Or it's making cheaper and stronger materials that can be produced in quantity, Christensen said.

Demyan said, “The real challenge — the holy grail — is coming out with a perfect part.” In his opinion it will take at least 10 years.

At 3D printer maker ExOne Co. in North Huntingdon, 75 percent of the parts it produces requires post processing, said Tom Pasterik, applications engineer at the company, which became publicly owned on Feb. 6. That includes heat treating or surface finishing.

Morris said he believes it may be 10 to 15 years before 3D manufacturers will be able eliminate post-processing steps.

Despite challenges, the 3D printing industry is expected to continue strong double-digit growth.

The market for 3D printing products and services worldwide in 2012 grew 28.6 percent to $2.2 billion, up from $1.7 billion in 2011, according to research by Wohlers Associates Inc. of Fort Collins, Colo.

By 2017, Wohlers Associates believes the 3D-printing market will approach $6 billion worldwide, and $10.8 billion by 2021.

But Terry Wohlers said advances in technology by the 3D industry do not match the attention it is getting.

“Increasing the speed and quality of the process has not advanced that quickly. ... It's not a simple the push button, and out pops a smooth part.”

More than 2,700 participants registered for this year's event, up from 1,400 at last year's in Atlanta. It is sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers in Detroit.

John D. Oravecz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

Subscribe today! Click here for our subscription offers.


Do you want to help us improve our commenting platform?
Click here to take this a survey.

Show commenting policy