General Electric is one of the largest manufacturing conglomerates in the world today. Even as critics mount in attacking the long term viability of their business units, GE is relentless in its pursuit of pushing the boundaries with additive manufacturing – particularly within its aviation division – with the goal of driving more efficient innovation and operating processes . Use of additive manufacturing can have widespread benefits that are limited not by the concept design but rather by the sheer scale of the printer itself . Additive manufacturing (“AM”), or 3D printing, is the use of computer aided design to direct a machine to deposit layers of material per the input design to create highly precise objects . In contrast to traditional manufacturing processes, where layers of material are shaved off of an original base, AM builds pieces from scratch. The AM process is highly automated once fully functioning, allowing for rapid design implementation through updates to input computer aided designs.
Development in the aviation industry has been slow and arduous since its inception. Constrained by slow production cycles and low feasibility of due to the scale of products, design processes are typically long and costly . Due to this lethargic pace of innovation, the industry is prime for disruption via additive manufacturing. Through years of commitment to this technology, GE Aviation is at the forefront of integration of additive manufacturing . With one of their latest developments, the GE Catalyst, a turbine constructed using more than one third 3D printed components, GE is starting to see the results of years of investing and testing .
The implementation of the AM process allows the development team at GE to think creatively. Designs that were previously deemed ‘too complex’ or ‘too expensive’ for traditional manufacturing process before are now easily coded into the machine for prototyping . At its most technologically advanced facility in Italy, GE works with all different types of materials that are cut by an electron beam, which brings a heightened level of precision to the large scale turbine manufacturing process . Another benefit of additive manufacturing for GE is that their life cycle for one prototype shrunk down to just a few weeks, drastically improving their ability to test new concepts and ideas . Lastly, the use of additive manufacturing has allowed GE to significantly reduce the number of component parts within each engine, from 855 to twelve for the GE Catalyst, reducing the weight of the engine and in turn decrease fuel consumption by up to 20% . The radical change from traditional to additive manufacturing should allow GE Aviation to tap in to a level of innovation not seen in this industry before.
GE has invested heavily in the past to lower the barriers to innovation within the aviation division. Most notably, their Additive Technology Center in Cincinnati Ohio is one of the world’s largest and most advanced additive manufacturers, housing six of the largest 3D printers as of early 2018 . The continued investment in its factories, both of this scale and smaller scale globally, and its scientists will be critical to the near term success. GE is also trying to harness the growing worldwide knowledge of additive manufacturing by its acquisition of two European companies this past year and planning to construct a factory in Italy of similar scale to that in Ohio . These decisions will enable the collective knowledge of additive manufacturing within GE to organically grow and permeate across geographies as they bring in more expertise and allow more trial among different divisions of their business lines.
Currently, GE is focused on isolating product development projects in their entirety for the additive manufacturing process, however I would recommend that they perform a larger scale review their existing products in production to potentially integrate 3D printed components as soon as feasible. The goal is to target multiple components that might pose the greatest design challenges and can be replaced by 3D printed components in a limited scope at first. The end result would be to isolate key design criteria that would result in the largest impact on design efficiencies. Longer term, I believe GE would benefit from partnering with advanced academic or research institutions focusing on 3D printing processes given that 3D printing is a young but technologically intricate process.
While this technology has shown promise for an individual product at GE, is this something that can scale across other product lines within the Aviation division? One concern I have for GE is that the aviation industry seems to be the perfect choice, as production is highly specialized and bespoke, thus I question if it possible for other business lines at GE to reap the same benefits of the larger investments in the additive manufacturing process.
- D’Aveni, Richard. “General Electric Should Defy Wall Street Pressure To Break Up.” Jan 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/richarddaveni/2018/01/19/now-is-the-worst-time-for-ge-to-break-up/#1c8b5ce82f0d
- Kellner, Tomas, and Bovalino, Yari. “Printing Heads: 3D Printing Has Launched a New Era in Aircraft Design.” Mar 2018. https://www.ge.com/reports/printing-heads-3d-printing-launched-new-era-aircraft-design/
- Frost & Sullivan. “Impact of Additive Manufacturing (3D/4D Printing) on the Global Energy Sector. Aug 2018. https://cds-frost-com.prd1.ezproxy-prod.hbs.edu/p/71319/#!/ppt/c?id=MC1B-01-00-00-00&hq=3d%20printing
- Kellner, Tomas, and Bovalino, Yari. “How 3D Printing and Digital Technologies are Altering the Face of Aircraft Engine Manufacturing in Italy.”Net, 2017. ProQuest, http://search.proquest.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/docview/1871316832?accountid=11311.
- Kellner, Thomas. “The Devil Is In The Details: How GE Found A Way To Bring 3D Printing To Mass Production.” Oct 2018. https://www.ge.com/reports/devil-details-3d-printed-part-jet-engine-part-now/