Repairing an airplane engine on a tight budget might become a lot easier

You’ve heard of 3D printing. Now meet 3D painting, which is also called cold spray.

As shown above, the process can repair machine parts in a matter of minutes. Small bits of metal are shot through a gun-like device at speeds approaching 2,237 mph. The metal (nickel alloys) travels in a blend of nitrogen and helium gas, and gradually stack up on the damaged part to recreate the desired surface. A robot controls the movement of the gun to ensure that the repair is done accurately.

The U.S. Army uses the technology to repair a component in Black Hawk helicopters. General Electric is working with its business partners to begin use of the technology for repairs in the civilian world. It expects the technology to be useful for aircraft engines, gas turbines and parts used in the oil and gas industry.

Some mechanical parts can’t be reheated, making repairs difficult or impossible. Welding is often out of the equation. With cold spray, parts that had to be replaced in the past may now be repaired, meaning significant savings.

With huge parts with even bigger price tags, the effects could be substantial. For example, a rotor in a gas turbine may be 12 feet across and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“With any technology, the challenge is always to go out and prove it in the field. When we build the experience to leverage it in a variety of applications, the opportunity is for tens of millions of dollars,” said Anteneh Kebbede, manager of the coatings and surface technologies lab at GE’s global research center.

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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