In its next generation of jet engines, General Electric Co (GE). plans to use a new, and possibly revolutionary, technology.
In each engine, 19 nozzles will shoot fuel into a combustion chamber, where it mixes with compressed air. Because the fuel must be distributed precisely, the interior of a nozzle is very sophisticated: Elaborate chambers and passageways help curtail emissions, control nitrous-oxide levels and prevent temperature surges. Previously, making each nozzle required welding 20 disparate pieces together. Now, GE is employing 3-D printing to build each nozzle as a single piece, using laser sintering on a metal alloy called cobalt chromium.
The new nozzle is faster to make, five times more durable and a full pound lighter -- on a two-engine plane, that saves almost 40 pounds. And it radically reduces scrap. By 2020, the company expects that 100,000 of its engine parts will be made using this process.
All around you, 3-D printing technology is making useful things in novel ways. Align Technology Inc. uses it to make clear orthodontics. Nike Inc. uses it to make soccer cleats. Bespoke Innovations makes customized (and quite stylish) prosthetics. And DUS Architects, a Dutch company, plans to print a whole house.
As the sheer variety of these examples suggests, 3-D printing is already having a demonstrable effect on the economy. Traditionally, it has been most useful in creating prototypes. But as GE and others are showing, printers will increasingly be able to produce critical parts and final products. In 2012, 28.3 percent of the $2.2 billion global 3-D printing market was tied to the production of parts for final products rather than prototypes, according to the Wohlers Report 2013. That shift could have profound implications for the economy and for public policy.
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