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The Heirs Of Gutenberg: GE Is Adding The Next Chapter Of Its 3D-Printing Push In Germany

When the German inventor Johannes Gutenberg developed the printing press during the Renaissance, he set words, and ideas, free. Six hundred years later, his compatriot Frank Herzog is taking printing to a new dimension, using it to liberate designers and reinvent manufacturing. Herzog is the founder of Concept Laser, one of the leading makers of industrial 3D printers. Whereas Gutenberg used movable type and sheets of paper to make books, Herzog’s machines fuse together fine layers of powdered metal with a laser beam and print three-dimensional objects directly from a computer file. With few limits on the final shape, the method gives engineers new freedoms and eliminates the need for factories filled with specialized machines or expensive tooling. “This is an engineer’s dream,” says Mohammad Ehteshami, who runs GE Additive, a new GE business unit focusing on additive manufacturing methods like 3D printing. “I never imagined that this would be possible.”

Last year, Ehteshami’s business spent more than $1 billion to buy controlling stakes in Herzog’s company and in Arcam AB, a Swedish maker of 3D printers. On Monday, Ehteshami opened a new additive Customer Experience Center at GE’s European research headquarters in Munich to further develop the technology.

Above: GE 3D-printed parts, like this fuel nozzle, are already working inside engines powering commercial jetliners. Image credit: GE Additive/GE Reports. Top Image: Industrial 3D printers fuse together fine layers of powdered metal with a laser beam and print three-dimensional objects directly from a computer file. With few limits on the final shape, the method gives engineers new freedoms and eliminates the need for factories filled with specialized machines or expensive tooling. Image credit: GE Additive/GE Reports.

The center, which resides inside a new building adjacent to GE’s European research campus located the Bavarian capital, will employ 50 engineers and technicians. It will help customers learn about additive design and production, and the different machines and the materials available. The new facility will also provide regional field support and spare parts. “This center and others like it will help customers understand the whole process, from design to prototyping, and demonstrate that additive is truly ready to be part of the manufacturing mainstream,” says Robert Griggs, the GE Additive executive who is leading the initiative. “In other words, the whole intent is finding customers who are today conventionally manufacturing their products and saying to them: ‘Hey, let us walk you through this and show you how you can change your supply chain; you can change the way you make things.’ ”

The center will supplement Concept Laser’s and Arcam AB’s existing customer training and support centers, and support the surging demand for the new technology. “They’ve been growing about 50 percent year over year,” Griggs says.

GE 3D-printed parts are already working inside engines powering commercial jetliners, and the company is using additive manufacturing to make parts and prototypes for gas turbines, oil pumps, medical scanners and other machines. Arcam printers in Italy, for example, are making turbine blades for the GE9X, the world’s largest jet engine, which GE Aviation is developing for the Boeing 777X wide-body jet. The printers made the blades from TiAl, a material that’s light and tough but also fiendishly onerous to work with.

An Arcam machine printed this artificial joint. Image credit: GE Additive/GE Reports.

Griggs said the company picked Munich because both Concept Laser and Arcam AB were European companies and the Bavarian capital was close to their sales and service teams. While GE Aviation experts may know a lot about 3D-printed fuel nozzles, Concept Laser machines are also already printing jewelry, dental implants and other customized components. GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt wrote in his annual letter to shareowners: “The long-term market potential for additive manufacturing is huge at about $75 billion. We plan to build a business with $1 billion of revenue in additive equipment and service by 2020, from $300 million today.”

Arcam AB and Concept Laser are helping GE Additive grow outside the parent company and across varied industries. “Additive at its core is about freedom,” Griggs says. “It’s about telling people that they have a choice. You can choose to do it yourself, develop your own supply chain, and whole host of things that you would be held captive to in conventional manufacturing.”

Griggs also points to additive manufacturing’s global implications. “Frankly, countries that couldn’t get into manufacturing due to a host of reasons can now say, ‘You know what? We really want to take manufacturing, develop our own resources and really localize,’ ” he says. Earlier in April, for example, Griggs’ boss, Ehteshami, helped open two “microfactories” in Abu-Dhabi and Dubai that will use 3D printers and other additive manufacturing machines to help local industrial companies speed up the adoption of additive manufacturing and design. “This is the platform to do it in because the infrastructure is completely different. You don’t need a casting house or a forging house anymore, both very dirty, non-environmentally friendly spaces,” Griggs says. “Now you can put in these quiet machines. Your workforce is much different and focused on design engineering, complex solutions.”

Says Griggs: “Additive is neat technology that really drives a host of outcomes that are really important.” Gutenberg would be proud.

GE Aviation’s Avio Aero business is using Arcam 3D printers to make compressor blades for the GE9X, the world’s largest jet engine, from TiAl, a material that’s light and tough but also fiendishly onerous to work with.

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