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Mohammad Ehteshami has spent a lot of time explaining the industry-disrupting, change-ringing possibilities of 3D printing.
By throwing out traditional manufacturing methods, it blows design possibilities wide open. As an example, Ehteshami recounts how, a few years ago, a team of eight GE Aviation engineers decided to find out whether they could 3D print a helicopter engine. Using a laser beam to “print” and weld together parts from hair-thin layers of metal powder — as opposed to cutting complicated parts and shapes from pieces of material — the team succeeded in reducing the number of components in the design from 900 to 14. According to GE, these printed parts were also 40 percent lighter — which would save on fuel — and 60 percent cheaper. “To make these parts the ordinary way, you typically need 10 to 15 suppliers. You have tolerances, you have nuts, bolts, welds and braces,” Ehteshami explains. But with 3D printing, he says, “all of that went away.”
Ehteshami is the man who runs GE Additive — the multinational conglomerate’s business arm dedicated to 3D printing. 3D printing is often referred to as additive manufacturing, reflecting that additive technology makes products by adding layers of material from the ground up, rather than subtracting pieces from larger sheets of material.
Think how Silicon Valley grew up around the talent of Stanford graduates. It’s not unreasonable to imagine GE might be building future boomtowns for additive tech.
“It goes way beyond what GE is making inside the company,” explains Rob Griggs, who runs GE’s Customer Experience Center in Munich. “It applies to medical, health care, power, oil, gas, aviation, space … it applies everywhere where metal is touching metal.”
So why is GE so determined to drive the disruption? Well, for starters, “the world spends between $13 trillion and $17 trillion annually on manufacturing,” according to Ehteshami, so “capturing just 0.5 percent of that could be an $85 billion opportunity.”
Little wonder, then, that GE is going in so hard. And the company isn’t just enthused about using the technology — it intends to lead it. After acquiring majority stakes in 3D printing companies Concept Laser and Arcam AB last year, GE Additive is able to tinker with and improve the technology itself. One crucial part of that is linking the printers to Predix, GE’s software platform for the industrial internet. By plugging the machinery into a network that can analyze, report back on and adjust operations in real time, GE can, as Ehteshami puts it, “look into the soul of the machine. We can go back and modify it to make it even better.”
This year, GE Additive is establishing a new, $15 million customer experience center in Munich to better educate potential customers about the technology’s capabilities while also showing off an ambition to drive adoption of the technology not only within GE but all over the world. And that’s a major show of confidence for 3D printing’s much-touted — but as yet unproven — capacity to bring about the next industrial revolution. As if to confirm that vision, GE Additive opened a second CEC in Pittsburgh just this month.
The technology takeover seems far from inevitable. But then again, neither is it impossible.
The location choices for these centers are significant. In Munich, the CEC can tap additive engineering talent from several surrounding universities. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Robert Morris University are at the forefront of additive technology. Think how Silicon Valley grew up around the talent of Stanford graduates. It’s not unreasonable to imagine GE might be building future boomtowns for additive tech.
But while GE Additive’s CECs intend to show all this off to visitors — providing hands-on training and demonstrations of design, operations, and real-time control and monitoring — it would be inaccurate to suggest that everyone shares such boundless enthusiasm. There remain plenty of skeptics keen to downplay the impact of additive, their gripes ranging from the expense of a technology in its nascent stages to the level of technical know-how required to operate the printers. And it’s certainly fair to say that completely rethinking how we manufacture things will take time. Even Ehteshami admits, “You need a new way of thinking, you need different training, you need different machines. This whole ecosystem is quite different from how we did things before.” And surely the fate of whether additive comes to dominate manufacturing rests with whether the industry can bring down the cost of machinery and materials. The technology’s takeover seems far from inevitable.
But then again, neither is it impossible. GE has already anticipated the expense problem, offering financial support through its financial services unit, GE Capital. And the industry is growing tangibly — according to the Wohlers Report 2017, 97 manufacturers were producing 3D printing systems in 2016, almost double the number producing the technology in 2015. The same report claims the additive industry hit global revenues of $6 billion last year.
GE is certain that 3D printing is more than a passing fad. As Griggs says, “We are firm believers that additive adoption is now, versus tomorrow.” If you build it, they will come, right?