Three experts on additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, described the potential for the technology to a capacity crowd at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on Thursday.
The primary presenter was Tom Kurke, former president and chief operating officer of Raleigh-based GeoMagic, a developer of 3D software for creating digital models of physical objects.
Fran Bolger and Marty Swan of GE Hitachi’s engineering team in Wilmington also spoke, demonstrating the way in which additive manufacturing is being used by GE Aircraft to make seamless parts for GE’s new LEAP engine and by GE Hitachi to make individual pieces of equipment used at Dominion Virginia Power’s North Anna plant in Virginia.
Kurke talked about the explosive growth the 30-year-old 3D technology is experiencing, thanks to the drop in prices for scanners and 3D printers themselves. He cautioned, however, that the best equipment in the world can’t produce objects without high quality software to render a printable image of the object.
How big a market does additive manufacturing represent in the U.S.? Kurke said that revenues are about $2 billion at present and have grown 20 percent or more per year over the past five years. Because the technology is best applied to low-volume, customized design work, its biggest growth has been in the consumer/hobbyist sector.
“The makers’ movement has just mushroomed,” he said, referring to the community of hobbyists who use technology to design and create objects.
Bolger said that additive manufacturing, despite the fact that it is still a slow process and not suited to mass production, holds real promise for GE. The company is investing about $3.5 billion over five years in the technology, he said.
“Its best applications are for rapid, functional prototypes and improved performance,” he said. “It represents a cost reduction for complex, multi-component assemblies, creating high-value products for low-volume, customized designs.”
Swan said that seamless 3D-made parts are well suited for use at nuclear plants because they hold up under very demanding conditions and are relatively inexpensive when making just a few copies.
Thursday’s event was the first session in a series the center is sponsoring this year that will focus on innovation as a spur for entrepreneurship.
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