It’s time to pay attention to additive manufacturing

“In the past, design engineers were always asking themselves: Can the factory actually make this? Those constraints are gone, and shapes that in the past looked too fancy are perfectly possible now. The benchmark for us now is achieving the most optimal design.” – Fabrizio Bussi, Engineer, 3D-printed Catalyst Engine for GE Aviation

Fabrizio is referring to additive manufacturing, a technology – and now a GE business – that is disrupting industries. We are bullish on its potential.

Earlier today I had a great discussion with former Fast Company Editor Bob Safian, at our first-ever #IndustryIn3D event. Dozens of innovators, customers, scientists and even NASCAR driver Brad Keselowski spent the day sharing best practices and highlighting the opportunities around additive manufacturing.

A quick primer: additive manufacturing, which includes 3D printing, gives designers new freedoms and allows them to make products that are much stronger and lighter, with more functionality, while also being much less expensive to make. 3D printers can print components directly from a computer file. These components are then used to fuse thin layers of material with laser and electron beams, one after another, adding materials layer by layer, to create the shape of the finished part. By contrast, when you create an object by traditional means, it is often necessary to remove material through milling, machining, carving, shaping or other means. This new process is changing the way companies make products and the way they do business. It is improving quality, efficiency and performance of manufacturing operations, decreasing inventory costs and improving development times.

There is no question that additive manufacturing is still in its nascent stages. Today, according to a study from A.T. Kearney, 3D printing is used to create less than one percent of the world’s manufactured parts. However, A.T. Kearney projects that 3D printing will triple its market value from $8.8 billion to more than $26 billion by 2021. According to the research firm SmartTech, “Over the past four years, an estimated $13.3 billion has been spent on 3D printers, print materials, print software, and print services. But over the next 10 years, more than $280 billion are projected to be invested in these solutions alone.”

I am more convinced than ever that this technology will fundamentally transform industry. It will deliver higher productivity and better outcomes for customers in aerospace, medical, automotive, energy and beyond.

But like any transformation, change takes time, perseverance, and requires people to operate outside their comfort zones.

Recently, we conducted our annual global innovation barometer survey and asked more than 2,000 executives from around the world about what is driving innovation, technology and the future of work. When it comes to additive manufacturing, we heard a clear message: businesses are excited about the promise of additive, but the prospect of the transformation is overwhelming. Some highlights:

  • 63% of global executives are excited about the potential of additive manufacturing, saying it will have a positive impact
  • 91% said additive will increase creativity
  • And 89% said it can help get goods to market faster

At the same time:

  • 53% believe additive has yet to reach its full potential, requiring more education and reassurance.
  • Only 14% said “3D-printing has already had an impact on businesses.”

The gap between the promise of additive, and the widespread adoption of these technologies is real.

Here is my message to the business leaders, customers, innovators and students who are still on the sidelines: if this 126-year-old company can do it, you can do it too.

Our teams at GE across our industrial businesses and at the GE Global Research Center have already seen the benefits of additive manufacturing. I’ll give you just two examples. First: the aviation industry. Our new Aviation Catalyst Engine used 3D printing to combine 855 separate parts into just 12, resulting in over a third of the engine being 3D printed. The engine’s new design will contribute to a reduced fuel burn of as much as 20% and provide 10% more power compared with other engines in its class. In our Power business, our teams are prototyping and testing fuel nozzles for ourHA turbines. We’ve been able to manufacture components using additive for the 9HA’s combustion system, using metal 3D-printing to unlock new geometries for better premixing of fuel and air, leading to greater efficiency. This means our 9HA.02 turbines are now available at an industry-first 64 percent, taking a leap from our already proven world record efficiency of over 63 percent. And while this increase may seem small, moving from 63 percent to 64 percent efficiency can save a large gas-fired power plant millions of dollars in fuel costs over its life cycle. The first HA gas turbines to utilize 3D-printed parts are slated for a power plant in Malaysia.

We know that it’s not enough to build our own additive facilities and implement technology within our businesses: it’s up to us to guide our customers in this transformation as well.

That is why we set up GE Additive, selling additive machines, materials and consulting services to customers outside GE. We also opened Customer Experience Centers in Munich and in Pittsburgh, so we can better support customers on their additive journey. Here, we lend our knowledge that spans more than a decade and domain expertise in additive to help customers determine how and where it makes the most sense for them to bring additive technologies into their own businesses. In these centers, customers are trained in the technology, are able to collaborate and re-design their product portfolio, learn how to select the right materials for their products and get help building their entire additive operations.

Customers are already seeing real results.

For example, Stryker Corporation, a medical technologies company using GE Additive machines, is producing titanium medical implants with a unique surface that actually fosters bone growth into the implant. That surface can only be created with 3D printing. Stryker has already supplied doctors with hundreds of thousands of these titanium implants which have improved the lives of people whose daily lives were affected by their ailments. Another customer using our additive machines, Optisys LLC, makes sophisticated, 3D printed, metal micro-antenna products for aerospace applications. Their next generation of radio-frequency antennas are being made using additive, reducing the number of parts in one of its antennas from 100 to just 1, while slashing the product’s weight by 95%. The firm also reduced the production lead time from 11 months to just 2 months, a substantial savings in production time.

In the words of John Haller, VP Global Supply, Stryker and GE Additive customer, “When designers can think differently without restraints, that’s when additive can really take off.”

John Flannery, CEO of GE