Like ocean surfers, manufacturers must constantly look over their shoulders and gauge the right time to try and catch new technology waves—not too soon and not too late. Sometimes multiple waves arrive at the same time, requiring extra vigilance.
3D printing coupled with hybrid machining, and using CT scans for in-depth metrology are two important trend “waves” you can read much about in this magazine. I also think that flexible hybrid electronics should be included on the watch list, and I’ll explain why. Together, the three could change how we fly and drive in the future.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, with metals gives engineers unprecedented design freedom to create strong, lightweight structures. It is, I think, a future rather than present wave. Although the concept has been around for decades, there are issues with speed, part size, and surface quality. Even though GE bought major suppliers and began using AM for critical components of its next-generation LEAP engine, the parts are small. So is the present output.
I predict we haven’t seen what is to come yet in additive manufacturing. It is still in its infancy. The benefits are too obvious for companies not to invest brilliant minds and capital to make faster 3D printers that produce larger parts. But it is not the whole picture.
Every advance brings new problems, and so it is with 3D printing. Printing parts means creating internal channels and spaces, critical elements of futuristic designs. How can engineers measure these critical internal features to ensure they meet tolerances? Enter CT (computed tomography) scanning for metrology, which I have been tracking for years now.
These scans go well beyond simple NDT (non-destructive testing) to allow quality personnel to precisely measure against GD&T (geometric dimensioning & tolerancing) standards inside parts. Today, this includes even metals like titanium and aluminum. Turbine blades with internal cooling channels, or some of the parts GE is 3D printing for LEAP, are ideal candidates for CT scanning metrology. The CT scanning suppliers themselves are looking at 3D printing as a key element of their growth strategy. The marriage of 3D printing with a reliable means of measuring inside complex structures is something any manufacturer should be looking at, first in aerospace, then in other fields.
The drawbacks to CT scanning are similar to those of 3D printing—part size, materials limited to lighter elements in the periodic table, and the high cost of the machines themselves. But again, the benefits of internal metrology on intricately created parts is too great. Look for future machines to tackle larger, denser parts more inexpensively.
As in all things, every advance brings new opportunities for collaboration, and so it is when 3D printing and CT metrology are coupled with flexible hybrid electronics. I had the opportunity to get a briefing on this technology, which is, admittedly, outside the normal scope of most ME readers.
The folks at a new Michigan-based research non-profit, IQM, enlightened me on how conductive ink allows designers to replace many bulky circuit boards with circuits that are literally printed with ink. Admittedly, this “wave” is perhaps a bit further off than the other two. It might even be a bit far-fetched. But if it advances into 3D printing, the impact of flexible hybrid electronics on the traditional way of making parts could be huge. There are research projects funded by a consortium named NextFlex that are investigating how to build such circuits using 3D printing techniques.
Think about it. Cutting tool makers are starting to embed sensors in spindles, toolholders, and tools. Small, integrated sensors connected with printed circuits embedded in the architecture of parts and machines hold promise in creating truly “smart” machines. It is time for us to at least look over our shoulders and see if, or when, to catch these waves.