Additive Manufacturing at GE Aviation

Can jet engine parts really be made from powder? General Electric certainly thinks so.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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%.[2] 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. [2]

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.[3] 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. [3] 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.[3]

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. [4] “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. [4] 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.[5]

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.[4] 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.[6] 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.[5] 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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Citations

[1] Patrick Boyd, “These Industries are the Future of Additive Manufacturing,” Industry Week; Cleveland, (November 17, 2016)

[2] Thomas Kellner, “An Epiphany of Disruption: GE Additive Chief Explains How 3D Printing Will Upend Manufacturing,” www.GE.com, November 13, 2017, https://www.ge.com/reports/epiphany-disruption-ge-additive-chief-explains-3d-printing-will-upend-manufacturing/, accessed November 2018

[3] General Electric, “GE Additive Manufacturing in Alabama: The Future Is Now,” https://www.ge.com/additive/press-releases/ge-additive-manufacturing-alabama-future-now, accessed November 2018

[4] General Electric, “GE Makes Significant Progress with Investments in Additive Equipment Companies,” https://www.ge.com/additive/press-releases/ge-makes-significant-progress-investments-additive-equipment-companies, accessed November 2018

[5] John Coykendal et al., “3D Opportunity in Aerospace and Defense: Additive Manufacturing Takes Flight,” Deloitte University Press (2014), https://www2.deloitte.com, accessed November 2018

[6] Choon Wee Joel Lim, Kim Quy Le, Qingyang Lu, and Chee How Wong, “An Overview of 3-D Printing in the Manufacturing, Aerospace, and Automotive Industries,” The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), 35 (2016): 4

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28 thoughts on “Additive Manufacturing at GE Aviation

  1. Enjoyed your article, Carlos! I agree that it’ll be interesting to watch how this investment in AM plays out with their competitors.
    One other question that comes to my mind was around the material inputs as a key success factor. Not only are companies thinking about making these materials for AM more economic, but also how they compare in terms of mechanical strength and reliability. I wonder whether there is space here for GE Aviation to think about devoting more materials science research into these raw material inputs.

  2. Love your article! Creating aircraft parts using 3D printers would have been unbelievable just a few years ago. I hope their new CEO will realize the full potential of this manufacturing process.
    I wonder why GE decided to focus on additive manufacturing specifically in the aerospace industry. As a conglomerate, I would assume they could bring this innovative approach to all of their divisions. Do you see any reason why aerospace is an especially beneficial field to start from? Where else in GE do you see this process benefitting?

  3. Very interesting view point and post Carlos! I believe you bring up a very thought provoking question in regards to the impact of other competitors towards leveraging additive manufacturing within aerospace. My reaction is that using 3D printing in approved and validated applications will over time drive down costs, decrease product development time, reduce resource utilization, and increase innovation capacity. Given these expectations, I believe we will begin to see competitors respond and focus their efforts on identifying additional 3D printing opportunities impacting the aviation product development process more broadly.

  4. Thanks for sharing this interesting piece Carlos! Sounds like GE Aviation is on the cusp of new cutting edge technology – an investment that could pay off in the long run. I share your concerns about the economics, especially if much of the product development currently looks like the 100x cost you provide in your example. However I agree that if they’re able to bring these costs down it could have significant positive implications. One other concern is the safety implications of additive manufactured products (vs. traditional manufacturing processes). Given the significant safety requirements that aviation equipment must satisfy, I worry that additive manufacturing may have a long road ahead before it is considered “safe enough” for the aviation industry.

  5. Thanks Carlos! Costs are a no brainer with respect to speed, material savings and fuel efficiencies. However, proving the safety and reliability of these parts should be the primary concern in aviation before they become widely used. These components are the definition of low-cost, but high cost of failure. Are mission critical components like these developed enough to be relied upon, especially if other industry players have “less knowledge” about their benefits? In the aviation environment, the smallest of components that are manufactured through an additive process can lead to catastrophic failures if not executed properly, when compared to the proven nature of traditional production. To me, safety should be the concern top of GE’s mind in the short- and medium-terms to win customer trust and stay ahead of the competition.

  6. Nice work, mate. I share your concerns about materials costs posing a potentially significant barrier to mainstream adoption and sustainability of additive manufacturing. Anecdotally, with all the talk I hear about other manufacturers following GE in investing heavily in the space, increased demand for the inputs and complements to additive manufacturing should, all else be equal, further drive up their prices. Unless those technologies mature at a similar pace, they could easily become the bottleneck hindering further growth in the space. Did you get a sense of the direction of those cost curves or technological development during your research?

  7. Thanks for the interesting article Carlos! I agree with your concern of competitor response, and my question would be whether being the leader in additive manufacturing in aviation can actually be an advantage or disadvantage for GE. Being a pioneer can bring many first mover advantages, but it can also mean that GE is taking on all the initial high costs and essentially paving the way for when competitors decide to copy, without the high initial experimentation costs. As one of the comments above, I would also be concerned of bringing 3D printing specifically to aviation, given the high risk of falling short on safety, and would like to evaluate if GE should focus its additive manufacturing efforts on other industries first.

  8. Carlos – great article and thank you for sharing. I’m a little concerned with your suggestion to focus more internally versus continued M&A with regard to additive manufacturing. In a field that is evolving so quickly do you think that GE will limit the amount of product ideas that enter the top of the development funnel, and in turn reduce the chance for step-change innovation? I fear that your suggestion will set up GE to make incremental improvements, but miss the change that will change how we think about additive manufacturing.

  9. Great post Carlos and many great points Carlos. I’m very curious to see how quickly GE can scale this technology not just for all the benefits you outlined above, but also for it’s potential impact on lead time for the broader aviation industry. Shorter lead times would significantly improve predictability upstream and downstream.

  10. Great article, Carlos! In thinking about the trade-offs between additive manufacturing and alternatives (specifically traditional injection molding), GE needs to remember to take into account the structural as well as financial differences. Given that injection molded parts typically have to be pieced together in post-processing, I doubt that they will be able to hold up structurally when going head-to-head with 3D printed alternatives. Additionally, injection molding and casting do not have the advantage of having the latticed internal structures that 3D parts do. This gives 3D parts both a weight and strength advantage.

  11. Great article! I actually think if the competition starts working in 3d printing it could be to GE’s advantage. If everyone is trying to figure out the best way to 3d print, you would imagine someone will find a way to make the process more cost effective. This could lead to a new industry standard where everyone is 3d printing and they can work together to make industry best practices. I do see how cost prohibitive this currently is, but hopefully the new CEO can find a way to make it work 🙂 I have faith in him!

  12. Carlos, I really enjoyed reading your post. I love the question you post at the end around how competitors will drive and influence future innovation in the industry. With new technology competition creates the opportunity to learn and create an all-together better product for the customer. I am left wondering how our regulatory environment will change in response to these new innovations. Can the end consumer trust these products as much as an engine made the “normal” way? You mention the stage gate process GE has put in place, but has there been an response from the FAA or other regulatory bodies? Are there risks we’re not yet aware of? Thanks for sharing information on a fascinating and relevant topic!

  13. Thanks for the article, Carlos! Very important considerations raised around the financial aspect and certification for Technology Readiness. In addition to the certification, would be curious to understand how GE is participating with universities and colleges to add additive manufacturing to the curriculum. Particularly, if GE partners with current engineering students, it could create innovation early-on and leverage the other expertise that students have in relevant industries – aerospace, mechanical, electrical, industrial etc.
    Moroever, if competition brings this technology as well, how will GE respond? Will it need to just expedite the process of prototyping further – i.e., making exploitative changes vs. exploratory changes?

  14. Great Job Carlos!

    Additive manufacturing seems to really make sense for all the great benefits that you have mentioned. However given the cost differential presently, when do you see this type of manufacturing actually making sense for GE financially? Also, is GE leveraging these technologies in its other businesses or only restricted to Aerospace and if so, why? Lastly, I wanted to understand the regulatory impact on tis manufacturing standard given the industry we are talking about. A lot of the other comments do highlight safety, so I am wondering what else does GE need to comply with and whetehr any regulation has financial/operational impact that would prevent it to leverage the full value of AM.

  15. Thanks for writing, Carlos! I think that competition is a huge player in driving how GE Aviation works on product development. Specifically, it’ll increase the time horizon on improving their process for additive manufacturing – they obviously need to figure out how to produce these parts faster and cheaper in order to compete, preferably faster than Pratt & Whitney and Rolls. I’m wondering even that’s even feasible given the scale of this operation. This is growing space that will definitely continue to explore other application of rapid-prototyping methods to manufacturing.

  16. Thanks for this really interesting article. I think the strategic question posed at the end is a fascinating one to consider. If GE earns a margin on every engine it sells to Boeing or other airplane manufacturers, how can they best capture the benefits from additive manufacturing? If other manufacturers such as Rolls Royce are also moving in the direction of additive manufacturing, does GE need to act with more urgency so as to be the first-mover that captures more of the benefits? This is a very interesting question for GE leadership to consider as they continue to innovate.

  17. Thank you for this Carlos. I’m not sure how I would feel about flying in a plane that was 3D printed, but it seems like this could be the way of the future! I was interested that you suggested moving away from M&A; to do this GE would have to believe they have the right engineering talent in house (or can attract it) and processes in place that allow for the development of this revolutionary additive manufacturing technology. I suspect they will need to take a hard look at themselves before moving forward with this approach. I would also be interested in how additive manufacturing can be used across GE’s other lines of business, and whether it makes sense to set up a central group focused on driving rapid technology development, then applying it to different functional groups (including GE Aviation).

  18. Great article! I think one additional concern to keep in mind for GE is that current 3D printing technologies are far from being fully fleshed out or optimized. Matter of fact, I believe that Arcam and Concept Laser, the two companies GE acquired, currently use two different 3D printing methodologies. Hence, GE needs to be cognizant of the continuously evolving nature of the 3D printing technique and avoid over committing to one particular 3D technique as it looks to scale additive manufacturing.

  19. One thought I have while reading your post (and others) on 3D printing outside of the regulatory and cost realms is the role of government. What is the impact that 3D printing will have on jobs in the market? Who was supplying these parts before? And if it were local suppliers, what is the role of government and GE in making sure companies do not go out of business or if they do, how to reintegrate individuals into the job market?

  20. Thanks for sharing Carlos! I wonder how regulators will react to this type of manufacturing replacing traditional manufacturing for companies like GE. It could have wide-reaching societal impact and I personally that companies like GE will have to think about the societal implications before taking these processes mainstream. But that brings up an important question: are companies responsible for subsidizing employees who are not adding as much value as machines? Or are they accountable to their shareholders to reduce costs in whatever way they can?

  21. Great article! GE definitely has a first mover advantage on Pratt & Whitney and Rolls Royce. While competing on cost could seem beneficial, I would think that they would want to focus on delivery time and QA/QC for B2B. The benefits of this type of manufacturing is the ability to customize without a massive cost. Aviation products need to be 100% reliable and developing a proven technology and robust QA/QC system I suspect will be what their customers care the most about.

  22. Carlos, this is super interesting, thank you for sharing!

    While I think there is tremendous benefit to 3D printing at GE I think there are also some drawbacks. Internationally, a lot of GE’s customers are governments who care about a variety of metrics, including employment. A big part of winning various infrastructure bids in various countries is the number of jobs one will bring to that country or the boost in supply chain in that country. Many countries have various local content requirements. I wonder how manufacturing at GE will change in terms of number of employees required with the implementation of 3D printing and how companies like GE will adapt their marketing pitch to their customers (i.e. governments) to compensate for these changes.

  23. Thanks for the great read Carlos! As you laid out, there are substantial benefits to support a shift toward additive manufacturing – namely cost savings, an ability to prototype rapidly, lightweight design, and tool-less production. However, the downside risk of product failure is enormous. Customers are likely to demand vast amounts of safety / performance data before feeling totally comfortable leveraging new manufacturing technologies such as 3D printing. Their reservations are likely to elongate the consumer adoption curve as a result (especially considering the importance of regulatory bodies in this industry, e.g. FAA). One potential solution to the adoption problem would be to combine additive manufacturing and predictive maintenance machine learning algorithms to report on product functional status in real-time. Doing so would help mitigate customer fears of a catastrophic failure. Lastly, do you have more information about the cycle time to develop products under additive manufacturing vs. traditional methods? I’d be curious to learn how quickly 3D printers can construct these parts and whether a potentially longer cycle time in this process could shift the bottleneck for product development.

  24. Thank you very much for sharing Carlos – it was a great read. Additive manufacturing seems like an incredible opportunity for GE as you have clearly illustrated. It is truly amazing how much can be saved and how much more efficient their processes can get. It would be great to see the P&L impact of this innovation to truly assess the value that is being created. With regards to your question, I think it is inevitable that GE’s peers will want a share of this market. The competitive dynamics will be interesting, but I do get the impression that this market is sufficiently large and new to accommodate a few big players. Moreover, GE clearly have a first mover advantage and have already made significant developments in this field, so if they continue to expand at the rate they are going they may be able to hinder the entrance of further players. A great space to watch going forward!

  25. Awesome article, thanks Carlos – I can only hope that GE’s leadership in this field will boost the stock price! I’m curious as to which competitors this innovation poses a threat to / where GE can truly displace incumbents (ie. aftermarket spare parts). I imagine there are several high-margin, specialized segments that will be attractive areas for GE to leverage their tech to gain an edge. However, I’m concerned that competitors will reap the benefits of GE’s high R&D expenditures.

  26. Thanks so much for your article! I think that relative to competitors, GE’s position as a conglomerate is priviledged by being able to have a higher R&D budget for additive manufacturing, and being able to lower the learning curve of 3D printing as they move towards the different divisions they have!

  27. Mr. Carlos G., thank you for sharing this impressive and well-written article. In my opinion, the recent cut of the dividend at GE will free up cash flow constraints that can hopefully one day be invested into more R&D developments. Now, to answer your question as to how General Electric’s competitors will respond? I believe, as with any competitive environment, they’ll accordingly invest capital and human resources into being able to add this capability to their manufacturing plants. Just as now established forms of manufacturing were once considered “new,” GE’s competitors may react swiftly to make sure they don’t lose competitive positioning in additive manufacturing.

  28. Thank you very interesting article.

    Question on the idea that GE should free up dollars from M&A and shift them into internal R&D…
    Might it be the case that hungrier start-ups who can give stock options and afford to take risks to fail are better positioned to innovate at the forefront? Is there anything inherently wrong with using M&A essentially as “out-sourced” R&D in which others take on the risks and than GE helps them scale the technology later on?

    Eric

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