“Our vision is very simple: We want to democratize manufacturing,” says Mohammad Ehteshami, who runs GE Additive, the GE business unit developing machines, materials and expertise for the nascent industry. The business has expanded from 560 people in late 2016 to 1,200 today, producing more than 500 printers per year. The new center is a key part of its drive to bring additive manufacturing into the mainstream. “Additive is so powerful that you either lead it or you get victimized by it,” Ehteshami says.
Jennifer Cipolla, GE Additive’s global leader in charge of customer experience centers like the one that just opened in Munich, has spent the last couple years running a similar facility GE built in Pittsburgh. That facility is helping GE businesses like Aviation, Power and Healthcare to 3D-print machine parts and products.
Cipolla says that “within two very short years, the conversation around 3D printing has shifted from ‘Why should I get into additive manufacturing and why is it important?’ to ‘Oh my gosh, my competitors are doing additive and I'm behind! How do I catch up?’” She continues, “Instead of trying to convince people that additive manufacturing is the way of the future, they're already there. It's now about taking the deep domain expertise that GE has built up over many years and helping our customers to realize the full value of 3D printing, from design and selecting the right parts fit for printing, to prototyping, optimizing the production process and getting the parts certified.”
GE has invested $3 billion in the additive manufacturing space, including $200 million in research and development. It acquired majority stakes in 3D-printer makers Concept Laser and Arcam, which also makes the special powders used for metal printing. To date, GE has shipped 25,000 3D-printed parts for machines like the best-selling LEAP jet engine, which brought in more than $200 billion in orders.
Some 150 customers attended today’s opening, including manufacturing heavyweights like BMW Group and Oerlikon. The two are already using 3D printing, have their own machines and want to increase their domain expertise. Others are exploring the field and want to learn how to adjust their current operations to incorporate additive technologies.
Maximilian Meixlsperger, leader of additive manufacturing metals at BMW Group, said that the company started in 2005 with a single Concept Laser machine and already 3D-prints 10,000 metal components per year. They included parts for the original BMW 507 from the late 1950s — once owned by Elvis Presley — plus customized dashboards for the all-new Rolls-Royce Phantoms and the new BMW i8 Roadster. “Productivity is the key for additive manufacturing to become a game changer in the automotive industry,” he says. He wishes that in the future, “every single product from the BMW Group will have additively manufactured parts.”
Florian Mauerer, head of the additive business unit at Oerlikon, calls additive the physical leg of the information revolution. It allows engineers to print parts that are stronger and lighter directly from a digital file, layer by layer. “The crowd will separate from those who have it and those who don’t,” he says. “The possibilities are almost unlimited.”
GE invested $15 million in the Munich center. Its surgically clean interior looks like a Hollywood version of the factory of the future — but there’s nothing fictional about it. A long blue LED ribbon wraps around the perimeter of the entrance into the 2,700-square-foot center, which is made from smooth concrete. There are several 3D printers of various sizes located along the perimeter of the ground floor and separated by folding glass walls. Made by Arcam and Concept Laser, these machines can print entire engine blocks as well as delicate skull implants that doctors can use for reconstructive surgery.
The room forms an atrium with a broad set of stairs leading to the second level, which holds the Additive Academy, where visitors will learn about 3D printing from GE and industry experts, and a “collaboratory,” where they can develop their designs and test different additive manufacturing applications. “It's really about us imparting our knowledge that we have gained over the past decade in additive,” says GE Additive’s Matthew Beaumont, who runs the new center.
Beaumont calls the center a “world-class training facility” that will help customers design 3D-printable parts and incorporate additive manufacturing into their business models. “The plan is to have examples of all of our machines here on the floor, that the customers come in, see, touch and actually use.”
GE decided to build the first global additive center in Munich because Germany is ground zero for 3D printing for metals. Concept Laser, for example, founded by the pioneering inventor Frank Herzog, is located about two hours from here, in Lichtenfels. GE Additive broke ground on a new 105 million euro factory there in November.
Beaumont says that the new center will give GE “an opportunity to show what we're doing, as well as hear from customers what they'd really like to have in the next generation of machines and the experience they've already had with them.” Says Peter Stracar, who leads GE in Europe: “Nothing drives innovation more than the interaction between companies and customers.”