Additive Manufacturing Meets IIoT: Printing Passive Sensors

By Will Hastings

Industry Trends

Additive Manufacturing technology has grown by leaps and bounds over the past few years.  Printing technology, especially in the metals space, is becoming faster, more accurate, and less encumbered by expensive and time-consuming post processing.  At the same time, additive manufacturing software, largely driven by PLM companies, is opening new avenues of design and simulation to create more complex parts with greater understanding and control of the process.  However, for the additive manufacturing industry to maintain it's remarkable growth over the past few years, it must continue to inspire innovation.   

In a recent briefing with Optomec, a global supplier of additive manufacturing systems for 3D printed electronics and 3D printed metals, I learned of their passive sensor applications.  In partnership with GE, Optomec has developed a passive 3D printed sensor for turbine blades.   Using an Aerosol Jet system, a thin ceramic pattern is printed onto a portion of a gas turbine blade.  By scanning the grid-like pattern over the course of the turbines life-cycle, GE can measure the blades creep and better predict failures.  As part of the program, GE employed Predix, it's IIoT Platform, to pull and analyze the data during regular maintenance cycles.    

The benefit of this program is largely due to the failure characteristics of turbine blades, which are known to exhibit a bathtub curve hazard function.  In other words, their highest probability of failure is in early or late life.  Typically, this means that a blade that has survived past early life will get replaced based on scheduled preventative maintenance rather than a particular risk indicator.  Unfortunately, this method often results in early or unnecessary replacements.  By introducing Optomec’s passive sensors, GE can focus its efforts on just-in time corrective action; addressing high-risk components faster and allowing low-risk components to remain in service for longer.  

Somewhat ironically, I find it compelling that the 3D-printed object isn’t the focus of the story.  Instead, additive manufacturing is used to affect a broader change to a well-established business function: maintenance.  It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen take hold in on-site part repair and supply chain management (see UPS’s On-Demand Network).  And while there is no shortage of innovative designs born of additive manufacturing, I am most keen on watching these systemic changes occur as the technology and ecosystem matures.        

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