General Electric Co. (Boston) has been very public about its use of additive manufacturing (AM) technology to build critical jet engine components, starting with the fuel nozzle for its LEAP engine. The company began experimenting with AM back in the 1980s and gobbled up the company that demonstrated the capability to build that LEAP nozzle (Morris Technologies) back in 2012.
GE has also been very public about the benefits, saying, for example, that the LEAP nozzle used to require 25 brazes or welds, while the one-piece 3D printed nozzle features passages as narrow as two human hairs, weighs 25% less, and delivers better fuel efficiency. Mohammad Ehteshami, vice president of GE Additive, also pointed to a project for the CT7 helicopter engine in which GE was able to reduce the part count from 900 to 16 by 3D printing roughly 40% of the engine. This also reduced the weight by 30% and the cost by 40%. “And from the day we gave them [the development team] the go and fired that engine was 18 months and two days,” said Ehteshami.
So it comes as no surprise that GE acquired two more 3D printer manufacturers in 2016, buying 76.15% of Arcam AB (Mölndal, Sweden) for $700 million in September and a 75% stake in Concept Laser GmbH (Lichtenfels, Germany) for $599 million in October. (The offer to buy SLM Solutions of Lübeck, Germany, announced in September, fell through.)
Arcam originated electron beam melting (EBM) for printing metal and, according to Cullen Hilkene, CEO of 3Diligent Corp. (El Segundo, CA), “became the biggest player in the metal printing market” that uses the technology. Hilkene has also written that “Arcam has an effective proprietary choke hold on powder bed Electron Beam Melting (EBM) technology, which is especially valued in the med tech and aerospace industries for its abilities to effectively print titanium.”
Concept Laser is another pioneer in powder bed fusion, focusing on the “aerospace, medical and dental industries, with a meaningful presence in automotive and jewelry,” according to a GE press release. As its name suggests, Concept Laser uses the more common laser sintering approach. According to the release GE has also invested approximately $1.5 billion in manufacturing and additive technologies at its Global Research Center in Niskayuna, NY, and has “developed additive applications across six GE businesses…and earned 346 patents in powder metals used for the additive process.”
Here’s where the surprise comes in. While GE figures it will need about 1000 AM machines over the next ten years, it expects to sell 10,000 AM machines to other companies during that period. That’s right, GE has created GE Additive not just as an organization to help their own manufacturing, but as a giant—perhaps the biggest— maker and seller of AM equipment for metal parts in the world.
Ehteshami said GE has several advantages, including deep experience in materials, its PREDIX platform for the industrial internet (which, according to Ehteshami, will be on every machine, ready to ease programming and analysis), and applications engineers who “come with the machine to show you how to use it, how to design parts for it, how to analyze your parts for optimal manufacturing.” He also pointed to GE’s knowledge about dealing with regulated industries like aerospace and medical and its global “ecosystem” of over 50,000 engineers. GE Additive is led by David Joyce, vice chairman of GE and CEO of GE Aviation. It sounds like they’ll be hard to miss.
Editor’s Note: This article is based, in part, on reporting by Bill Koenig, senior editor of Manufacturing Engineering.