General Electric – Will Investments in Additive Manufacturing Yield Results?

A brief look at investments in additive manufacturing by GE and implications for the future

General Electric Company competes in manufacturing of complex products across a variety of industries including power, renewable energy, oil and gas, aviation, healthcare and transportation.[1] The capabilities to produce all the parts in a jet engine or a turbine are not easily attained and there is a significant barrier to entry when competing in the premium segment of these markets – a single part can take days or weeks to manufacture.[2] What if GE could reduce a 100-part product to a 1-part product and “print” the completed product inhouse? GE would realize savings across their supply chain. No longer would GE need to deal with 100s of contractors, delivery and capacity issues of suppliers, as well as a final complex assembly. The benefits of additive manufacturing to a company the size of GE would be enormous, especially if it could be utilized across all verticals and for multiple products.

There is little doubt that additive manufacturing will and does enhance the production capability of GE across their competitive segments with clear beneficial examples already existing in GE’s aviation segment (engines) as well as their oil and gas segment (valves).[3] According to GE annual reports in the last few years, GE attributes growth and productivity in the future to investments in additive technology.[4] However, the question remains as to whether there is actually enough for GE to benefit significantly from additive manufacturing in the long run, or if this technology will remain niche and applicable to a small subset of premium products.

The formation of the GE Additive division in 2016, which now has offices in 27 markets around the world, is the clearest signal to the market that General Electric is serious about the industry in both the short and long term.[5] In 2012, GE acquired Morris Technologies, a pioneer in the additive industry who had already been working with GE to test and iterate on engine designs, but never to produce final complex parts. Using additive technology, Morris created a complete engine fuel nozzle that normally would require 20 separate parts in a single unit weighing 25% less and was 5x more durable than attempts previously made by GE in early 2012.[6] By 2016, multiple engines were utilizing 3D printed parts, and the stated goal of GE for 2020 was “to build a business with $1B of revenue in additive equipment and service…from $300M today[7]. GE more recently acquired a controlling stake in both Arcam AB, a leading Swedish metal 3D print manufacturer, as well as Concept Laser a German 3D print firm.[8]

This approach of securing talent through acquisition has led to the creation of GE Additive, and will keep GE at the forefront for the short term, but GE also has plans to develop long term in-house capabilities to drive leadership in the space. GE’s Center for Additive Technologies (CATA) opened in 2016 at a cost of $40M and is funded by each of the GE business units. CATA’s goal is to develop additive use cases across business verticals, and as noted, the crux of additive manufacturing becoming mainstream is finding these use cases well into the future.[9]

The greatest concern is bringing additive technology to other verticals. Not in terms of the machinery to produce parts, but the actual knowledge to leverage the machines themselves. The talent required to build additive machines is different than the talent required to utilize and take advantage of the machines within a specific domain, and GE can win on both fronts if focused on.

There are many success cases already for GE, but 99% of parts that are manufactured for most businesses are standard and don’t require customization.[10] The question then is will additive manufacturing be something that revolutionizes GE’s business, or are there a limited set of applicable use cases? The goal of achieving $1B in revenue by 2020 from additive processes seems large, but GE is a $100B+ revenue company[11] and this technology is expensive to invest in and requires years of lead time to implement. (800 words)

[1] Reuters https://www.reuters.com/finance/stocks/company-profile/GE.N (Accessed 11/12/2018)

[2] Thomas Kellner, “World’s First Plant to Print Jet Engine Nozzles in Mass Production,” 2014 https://www.ge.com/reports/post/91763815095/worlds-first-plant-to-print-jet-engine-nozzles-in/

[3] Thomas Kellner, “Put It Into Print: The Future of Manufacturing In America (And Everywhere Else) Is Emerging, Layer By Layer, At This GE Plant,” 2017 https://www.ge.com/reports/put-print-future-manufacturing-america-everywhere-else-emerging-layer-layer-ge-plant/

[4] GE 2017 Annual Report https://www.ge.com/investor-relations/sites/default/files/GE_AR17.pdf (Page 7)

[5] GE Additive website https://www.ge.com/additive/who-we-are (Accessed 11/12/2018)

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

[7] GE 2016 Annual Report https://www.ge.com/ar2016/assets/pdf/GE_AR16_LetterAndForm10-K_IntroAndSummary.pdf (Page 17)

[8] “GE Agrees to Purchase Controlling Shares of Arcam AB”, GE Press Release 2016 https://www.ge.com/additive/press-releases/ge-agrees-purchase-controlling-shares-arcam-ab

[9] Thomas Kellner, “All The 3D Print That’s Fit to Pitt: New Additive Technology Center Opens Near Steel Town,” 2016 https://www.ge.com/reports/all-the-print-thats-fit-to-pitt-new-additive-technology-center-opens-near-steel-town/

[10] Matthias Holweg, “The Limits of 3D Printing,” Harvard Business Review 2015

[11] Reuters https://www.reuters.com/finance/stocks/financial-highlights/GE.N (Accessed 11/12/2018)

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3 thoughts on “General Electric – Will Investments in Additive Manufacturing Yield Results?

  1. This is an interesting commentary on what could be next (and what could potentially save) GE. I’d be curious to understand more about what role you think additive manufacturing can or should play in different divisions. I thought it was interesting that you separated out premium products from the rest of the GE portfolio. Particularly for these premium products, what role do you see additive manufacturing playing in the incremental improvement of product design? Do you think it makes sense for GE to focus on big breakthroughs like the single print product that you mention? Or do you think it makes more sense for them to be focusing on a more incremental approach of developing smaller components that still allow them to reduce the time and number of components needed to create a product?

  2. I think GE, with the high levels of diversification across many industry verticals, is setting itself up for success by investing heavily in additive manufacturing! Your identification of GE focusing on innovating in additive manufacturing as a separate business rather than within a particular vertical is a key point. This will enable the new unit to learn from a wide range of solution spaces and create robust / versatile manufacturing methods.
    At the same time, I think there is a risk that the wide focus can lead to slow progress. If GE balances this well, I think they can become an innovation leader here.

  3. The benefits of 3D printing at GE are clear and compelling. While they’ve made what seems to be an enormous investment in additive manufacturing, I am a bit surprised given that the scope of what they can apply this technology to seems quite small. I think the point you make on the talent pool needed for this technology also being different is quite interesting. Bringing on this technology requires a huge investment and it will interesting to see how they will proceed in using it.

    I think another interesting question given the current state of GE is whether it will keep its additive manufacturing division when times are tough. If it chooses to cut the division, that may be a clear indication that the investment was more of a trial and that the company does not see much of a practical future for the technology.

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