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Ewloe, United Kingdom
Writing, tweeting, debating and occasionally getting a little over-excited about 3D Printing. But always aiming to keep it real!

Monday 3 July 2017

GE & AM — A Historical Perspective, Ramping Up and What Next?

Feature Article for Disruptive Insight Magazine, Issue 6 [Unedited].

Everyone has heard of GE — or General Electric. Right? That big American company that makes fridges, washing machines and lights etc. …..

Before the company’s ventures into the additive manufacturing (AM) industry beyond being an early adopter of the technologies, that’s certainly how I thought about it — if I thought about it at all. Said ventures have been coming thick and fast over the past 12 months and I decided to take a closer look and think around it a little bit. 

In broad brush strokes, GE is a huge US multinational company, incorporated in NYC on the Dow Jones stock exchange and is currently in the process of moving its global headquarters to Boston, MA (from Fairfield, CT) — not a small undertaking by all accounts, but the move is scheduled to be completed 2018. The company ranks high on the much vaunted Fortune 500 list, and this year placed as the thirteenth largest company in the United States according to gross revenue figures of $111.5 Billion. The company’s history is a fascinating one, and in my ignorance, I was unaware of its origins which date back 125 years. In 1892 General Electric (which has never changed its name) was formed through the merger of the Edison General Electric Company of Schenectady, New York, and the Thomson-Houston Electric Company of Lynn, Massachusetts. Four years later, in 1896, GE was one of the 12 original companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial average, and today it is the only original company to still be listed.

As one might imagine, a century and a quarter has resulted in many changes and vast growth for this industrial giant, involving countless mergers, acquisitions and divestments. Far too many to document here, but of note is the sale of the division of the business for which it has traditionally been best known among the general populace — its appliance division, which was sold to Haier Group for $5.4 million at the beginning of 2016.

As of 2017, GE is formed of 10 independent business operations, which are categorized as follows, according to the company:

·      GE Aviation
·      GE Capital
·      GE Digital
·      GE Energy Connections
·      GE Healthcare
·      GE Lighting
·      GE Oil & Gas
·      GE Power
·      GE Renewable Energy
·      And, the most recent — GE Additive.

GE, more specifically GE Aviation, is one of, if not, THE most prominent example of AM user evolution. This division of the company has been using additive technologies for more than two decades, and was among the earliest adopters. Tales of the earlier history with additive can vary different depending on who you listen to / speak with from GE Aviation. Most recently, I heard GE Aviation’s CEO, Mohammad Ehteshami, speaking at the Materialise World Summit (MWS) in Belgium, about GE’s initial foray into additive manufacturing both in house and via a local service provider in Cincinnati, one Morris Technologies. Since hearing him speak, much of the content of his presentation has also been published in a couple of GE Reports with some delightful perspective and further details.

The MWS presentation and the reports provide the historical context of GE’s evolution with additive technologies under Ehteshami’s leadership. He has been with the company for 31 years, no less, and in that time he has steered the development of one of the world’s largest and most powerful jet engines.

GE Aviation’s relationship with Morris Technologies, itself led by Greg Morris whose reputation across the AM industry is legendary, began back in the 1990’s in the traditional way — for engine prototypes that could be iterated rapidly. Over time, as the additive processes and materials improved, and experience increased, projects progressed — as did the relationship with Morris. Ehteshami and his team were developing the LEAP engine at this time, and had hit a roadblock with a complex part that required a multiple component assembley — the now famous fuel nozzle — and considered the possibility that additive manufacturing might offer a solution. But they didn’t know how, but they knew a man that might.  

The story goes that “[t]hey swore Morris to secrecy and sent him the computer file with the drawing of the intricate nozzle tip. He printed it from a nickel alloy and invited the team over a few days later. ‘I remember that day like today,’ Ehteshami says. ‘I was excited but also disturbed. I knew that we [had] found a solution, but I also saw that this technology could eliminate what we’ve done for years and years and put a lot of pressure on our financial model.’”

So (relatively) quickly, Ehteshami took action, as he relayed at MWS: “And we bought the company” in 2012. And indeed this was really the first compelling sign that GE was serious about AM in a different way to its aerospace cohorts. The news of the Morris acquisition got a great deal of media and industry attention at the time, as you might expect, but it was all focused on the part — that fuel nozzle, and by default the LEAP engine. What I suspect was not fully understood back then was GE’s big picture vision for AM.  

The past 12 months have gone some way to fill that picture in.

It was about this time last year that GE Aviation set the AM and 3D printing industry alight once again, with the news that it was set to acquire two European metal AM vendors — SLM Solutions (Germany) and Arcam (Sweden). Negotiations didn’t quite go according to plan, but the end result was similar when the $1.6 billion deal went ahead with the acquisition of a metal powder bed fusion technology company, Concept Laser (also in Germany), and the electron beam melting technology company, Arcam. There has been much written and debated about the size of this deal ($), and, more pertinently, about the many implications for the AM industry itself in terms of metal AM competitors and critical users of these two acquired brands. There are some arguing that GE is setting up to monopolize the metal AM part of the industry, particularly for aerospace applications, but others see it differently, arguing that it will drive developments, applications and, ultimately, adoption across the entire industry.    

Personally I am still on the fence, it could go either way but the aerospace angle here cannot be overstated. GE certainly was a client of Renishaw and EOS, indeed the LEAP engine fuel nozzles are currently qualified on EOS machines. How long it will take for them to transfer this to the Concept Laser systems — if indeed they do / can — remains to be seen.

At this point it is hard to argue that GE is not seeking to at least dominate this sector. Since the acquisitions, GE has gone on to separate its focus on additive out from the Aviation division, with the establishment of a dedicated division of its own: GE Additive, towards the end of last year. This independent division quickly went on to make a series of impressive launches including opening the first of several Customer Experience Centers, in Munich, Germany. The intent is to set up a center of AM excellence, furnished with around 10 AM machines from Concept Laser and Arcam and operated by up to 50 GE Additive employees to provide services as well as hands-on training and instruction for customers.

The further intent is to replicate this model all around the world to “expose and engrain the additive technology to manufacturers worldwide,” according to Robert Griggs, general manager of the Customer Experience Centers for GE Additive. So while aerospace will still be a dominant application, it certainly is not the only focus. With the Arcam platform in particular, medical applications are proliferating along a similar growth curve. This point is supported by GE Additive’s announcement just this month, of its formal collaboration with Stryker.

Talking of AM announcements this month, GE has been prolific – yet further indicators of the dedication and focus to this technology field. GE Additive has, in just a few weeks, announced: that it has added its proprietary Predix platform to Concept Laser machines; the aforementioned partnership with Stryker; a similar collaboration with Oerlikon; an education funding initiative with 400 schools to receive 3D printers; and perhaps most significantly, based on all its newly acquired IP plus decades of knowledge, GE is developing its own new, large frame metal AM machine. Designated ATLAS, this powder bed system is being developed to build parts up to 1 metre in the X & Y axes.  

Despite the size of and funding available to GE it is particularly interesting to note that partnerships / collaboration are still a priority. The newest relationships, with Stryker and Oerlikon are still to bear fruit. But once again, GE’s history in this regard highlights the real opportunities that exist.

Also just last week French Aviation company Safran announced that it had obtained certification for a critical aerospace, metal additively manufactured gas turbine engine part from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The part — a nozzle — is a core component within an auxiliary power unit (APU) for the Leonardo AW189 helicopter. This successful certification means that Safran can roll out the nozzles across other turbine models, validating additive manufacturing as a means of production for these high-stress parts.

Reporting on this development, Safran disclosed that the nozzle was produced using the Selective Laser Melting (SLM) process with a hastelloy X (nickel-based) material. Moreover, the part is now 35% lighter than its conventionally machined predecessor and has consolidated an eight-part assembly into a four-part assembly.  

Sound familiar?

It’s really not that surprising when you learn that the Safran nozzle comes from CFM International, a decade old collaborative venture between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines.

GE’s additive growth trajectory in recent years has been phenomenal. Key to this is that it is not linear, but the result of a multi-faceted approach to the entire ecosystem of technologies driven by high value applications.

Where GE Additive goes from here is mighty hard to second guess, so I will leave you with GE’s own words from its Investor Relations page for 2017: “We’re not done yet. Expect continued transformation in 2017 and beyond.”

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