3D Printing 1987: Pratt & Whitney Gets its First 3D Printer

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AMUG DiNO Jim Harrison, a Technical Sales Representative at nScrypt, has been in the 3D printing industry since its inception. In this series on the history of additive manufacturing, Jim recounts the early days up to the modern era.

I was working at Pratt & Whitney, Military Jet Engines, in West Palm Beach, Florida. I was in the Turbine Group with Don Deptowicz, Fred Steinbauer (AMUG DINO – 1998), Jim Southard, Marsha Burkhardt and Rob Connelly (AMUG DINO – 1998). Don Deptowicz, my boss at the time, put this plan together for the first of two SLA-1 Beta machines from 3D Systems: one system for P&W Hartford, CT and one for our division.

The agreement was completed in September 1987 and Jim Southard was in charge of setting up the shop for its arrival. I started mostly doing the CAD (Unigraphics) work on an IBM 5080 that required two monitors, green screens, and a tablet. I was building an airfoil by digitizing cross sections using points and splines, which were green. It took weeks and my vision was getting blurry because of the many green splines. At night, when I was sleeping, I’d be dreaming of these stupid green splines. It was starting to drive me crazy.

We received the system in December and produced our first part before Christmas 1987. These were very exciting times. We had lots of Christmas presents to open at work.

Pratt & Whitney’s First 3D Printed Parts

In the image above, you’ll see one of the first parts produced in 1987 on our SLA-1 Beta 3D printer. Notice the stepping, mounding, and support lines. We had to design the supports in CAD. It took 24 hours just to slice on the NEC286 computer. “Slice” was the term we used for processing the file in those days. It took another 24 hours to build. At this point, the system didn’t have a sweeper arm set up, so we had to set the dwell time for each layer at three to nine minutes!

The smell of the original resin was pungent. Even after curing and sitting for a few days, the parts still reeked of photopolymers. When opening the chamber door, the stink would knock you over. Our lab was located on the manufacturing floor, so the shop personnel was always complaining about the smell, as the odor would occasionally leak out of the lab and into the shop.

We had to wear respirators when working with the materials. One day, as I was walking over to the lab, I noticed the flashing lights and shop guys running from the area. Then I saw it: Jim Southard standing outside the lab with his hazmat suit on with his hands up and asking where everyone went. Jim was always pulling pranks.

Introducing the Air Force to 3D Printing

In 1988, I was working on a digitized airfoil for an Air Force review. I finished it in time to test on the new SLA-1 and we built the part ahead of a meeting with the Air Force. As I was carrying the 3D printed part component up the stairs, someone bumped into me I dropped it right there. Well, the old resin was much more brittle than today’s stuff, so the piece shattered.

The 3D Systems SLA-1 Beta System at Pratt & Whitney, WPB, FL in 1987.

It took me about 30 minutes to find all the fragments, while people kept walking by looking at me strangely. I walked up to Fred’s desk, handing him a bag of pieces. His first response was, “What’s in the bag?” I will never forget the look on his face as he handed the sack back to me and said, “How good are you at puzzles?”

I pieced the part back together just in time for the Air Force meeting. As Fred presented the component, the text on the overhead display read “This part produce by: Jim “DROP” Harrison.” That’s when I realized what a great sense of humor he had.

In the beginning we had lots of crashes. One day Fred had set up a large build that ran for four days over a holiday. When we came back, it was a huge mess that filled the chamber. At first we called it our rats nest. Later, Fred placed it in the hall way with a sign: “Please give generously to our poster child. Her name is: ‘Poly Mer.’”

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