Can jet engine parts really be made from powder? General Electric certainly thinks so. GE Aviation has become one of the leading innovators in additive manufacturing. In the mature aerospace industry, the value proposition of additive manufacturing is quite clear. It provides a path to cost reduction, rapid prototyping, lightweight design, and tool-less production. GE Aviation has already put this practice to action through the CFM LEAP, one of the most popular passenger jet engines in the world. The LEAP, which is being delivered today and has over 12,000 cumulative orders, uses additively manufactured fuel nozzles. The technology enabled the company to reduce the nozzle from 20 separate pieces to just one while at the same time reducing the weight by 25%. Additive manufacturing has been a paramount initiative for the company as it competes to remain the engine leader in the fast-growing commercial aerospace industry. Significant product development, such as parts for the GE90X (one of the largest engines in the world), and various process improvement initiatives, such as rapid prototyping, demonstrate GE Aviation’s determination towards deriving a competitive advantage from the technology. 
Management has made several investments to continue developing capabilities in the near-term. The new GE Aviation plant located in Auburn, Alabama is a dedicated additive manufacturing facility with over 28 machines. Here, the company is focusing on process improvement to grow production from ~12,000 additively manufactured fuel nozzles in 2017 to an estimated 35,000 by 2020. “Our production rates and yields for the LEAP nozzle tips are where we had hoped, and cost curves are trending in the right direction,” explains Sean Keith, manager of Machine Technology for GE Additive.  GE Aviation is also working to receive certification for its Advanced Turboprop Engine, of which 35% is produced by additive manufacturing, in the next two years.
GE is also being proactive in positioning its capabilities for the longer-term. In 2016 the company acquired Arcam and Concept Laser, two major producers of additive manufacturing machines and technology.  “GE has made significant long-term commitments to both Arcam and Concept Laser to enhance their complementary technologies,” explains Mohammad Ehteshami, Vice President for Additive Integration at GE Additive.  With this knowledge now in-house, the company is better equipped to tackle some of the biggest issues facing additive manufacturing in aerospace such as developing systems that can match traditional manufacturing’s ability to produce large parts.
To overcome the challenges presented by additive manufacturing, management will have to make operational improvements while continuing to focus on technology and product development. First, the company should continue to innovate within the limitations of existing technology while shifting their focus away from M&A and into internal development. This narrowed focus could yield solutions to critical technology limitations. Secondly, management should ensure that additively-manufactured parts have a specific gate dedicated to part certification in the Technology Readiness Level process (a version of a Stage-Gate Process). Since there is much less knowledge around additively manufactured parts within the industry, GE Aviation will have to establish a robust certification process to allow future product development to flow smoothly. Finally, management should evaluate the financial feasibility of future part conversions due to high raw material cost. For reference, in 2013 a Kilogram of additive manufacturing thermoplastic cost $200 while those used in traditional injection molding cost $2. Even if the company is able to additively manufacture more parts, the economics of the projects may not always make sense.
GE Aviation is changing the landscape of traditional aerospace manufacturing. Though the company must still navigate various challenges, they have positioned themselves as the clear industry leader in the megatrend of additive manufacturing. GE Aviation has enjoyed being one of the first aerospace players to capitalize on additive manufacturing, but the question comes to mind: how will competitors (such as Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce) impact the company’s approach towards product development in this new domain?
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