Future takes shape in 3D

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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — Mankind has been printing in some way, shape, or form for thousands of years. But, in the early 1400s Johann Gutenberg invited the printing press.

This movable type has come a long way over the centuries and as we continue to progress we can now print in plastic, ceramics, and even metal. Through 3D printing, clothing, homes, and cars have been created. There seems to be no limit on what this technology is cable of.

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One local company in the Cape Fear is also using this innovative equipment to shape the future.

GE Hitachi in Castle Hayne has been printing in 3D since late 2013.

“It is just like a printer we have on our computer. Instead of sending it to my paper printer, I send it to my 3D printer, and it prints it overnight,” said Marty Swan, one of the New Product Managers at the plant. “The next morning he has the parts in his hands testing them out.”



How does it all work?

An engineer formulates a design of a tool he or she wants to create. That design is then loaded onto the computer.

“We actually then run it through the software, and it will actually slice it layer by layer and look at the tool paths,” said Advanced Manufacturing Lead Engineer, David Webber.

From the computer to the printer, those layers are the key to how the shape is physically built.

“It just continues to build up the layers on top of each other, and can actually make very complex shapes,” said Fran Bolger who serves as a New Product Introduction Manager.

GE Hitachi’s 3D printing program in Castle Hayne creates prototypes of tools with its technology. Those tools are printed in plastic.

“The best way I can describe it is as weed eater wire,” said Webber.

Looking inside the printer, the wire comes from a canister. It is then feed through the machine, where it is heated by a nozzle. That nozzle then lays the plastic to make the part.

How long does it take to create?

Depending on the detail and complexity of a particular part, it can take anywhere from a few hours to days to print.

“It actually prints the parts straight to the build plate. It actually melts them into it and then all you need to do is break them lose,” said Webber.

Once the tool is lose and in the hands of engineers, the final step is to put it in an ultrasonic bath, which was explained as basically soap and water. That bath melts away the material that was printed as support for the piece.

How costly can this get?

“It’s not cheap. But the amount of time and money it would take to get it made out of real material is weeks and thousands of dollars,” said Swan.

Engineers with GE have developed something called the remote uncoupling tool.

The 3D prototype was printed in New Hanover County and then tested during maintenance work at a nuclear reactor in the Midwest. This tool is now on the market for GE customers.

The remote uncoupling tool is designed to reduce radiation exposure to the tech during preventative maintenance.

At the GE Aviation plant in Cincinnati, OH, the 3D printers there work to build engine nozzles for planes, which are printed in metal.

If you would like to try your hand with these printers, we found some whole sale stores around town that have them for sale. They come with a price tag of about $2,000.