3D printing is taking off. Literally.
Just a few weeks ago, GE Aviation fired up for the first time the Advanced Turboprop engine. The company 3D printed 35 percent of the engine, combining 855 parts into just 12. 3D printing helped GE designers shave off more than 100 pounds in weight, improve fuel burn by as much as 20 percent, give the engine 10 percent more power and simplify maintenance compared with older GE turboprops. “This engine is a game-changer,” said Paul Corkery, general manager of the Advanced Turboprop program.
The ATP is the latest GE machine that takes advantage of additive manufacturing, a family of new industrial technologies that includes 3D printing. GE has invested $3 billion in the space, including $200 million in research and development, and launched a new business unit called GE Additive. The company acquired majority stakes in 3D-printer makers Concept Laser and Arcam, which also make the special powders used for metal printing.
That investment is bearing fruit. 3D-printed fuel nozzles already are at work inside engines that power Airbus and Boeing passenger jets. GE has shipped 25,000 3D-printed parts to date.
GE also has begun opening a constellation of global “Customer Experience Centers” where companies can learn about 3D design and take the machines for a spin. The first opened in Pittsburgh in 2016, and a second opened in Munich in early December. More are being planned worldwide, with a goal of having at least one center in each region.
Jennifer Cipolla, GE Additive’s global leader in charge of the centers, 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?’”
We were curious, too, so we caught up with Cipolla and her colleague Matthew Beaumont, who runs the Munich center, at the opening last month. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
GE Reports: How has your job changed over the last two years?
Jennifer Cipolla: It changed a lot. 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.
Matthew Beaumont: That’s why we opened the site here in Munich. In Pittsburgh, we are also helping GE businesses embrace additive, but the Munich location is the first GE Additive experience center built specifically for customers outside of GE. We want to take this value that we have accumulated over the past decade since GE started exploring the additive space and share it with our customers. If you are just starting out, you can come in for a quick tour to learn what additive manufacturing is. But you can also attend really intense, multiday workshops.
GER: Walk us through the center’s offerings.
MB: They are built around three pillars. One is obviously the 3D-printing machines that we now make. You can come in and touch them and see them when they are running. Design is another one. Customers who attend our workshops can bring a part they made by molding or some other traditional way. We help them scan it, create a 3D model and adjust the design in a way that’s most optimal for 3D printing. Finally, we can help them figure out the business case for additive manufacturing. Does it make sense for them to buy machines or contract with someone? What would their shop floor look like? How do they move from prototyping to full production? What would it mean for their supply chain?
JC: In my experience, getting their head around the business case is one of the hardest things for companies to do. Some customers have no idea where to begin, but GE has done it at GE Power and GE Aviation.
GER: How does GE benefit?
MB: We get input from the customers and hear from them about their experience with the machines and what they’d really like to have in the next generation. If we hear the same “What if?” and “Would this be possible?” from several customers in a row, we will feed that information right back to the engineering and design teams.
GER: When Florian Mauerer, head of the additive business unit at Swiss technology company Oerlikon, spoke at the opening, he called additive the physical leg of the information revolution. Do you agree?
JC: Absolutely. Additive manufacturing is inherently a digital manufacturing technology. It allows us to get data about the product and also from the machines. We can understand what’s happening during design and before, during and after production. We can feed the data into apps built on Predix, GE’s software platform for the Industrial Internet, and analyze machine utilization, how much powder we have left on the machines, and many other factors. Here in Munich we have displays above our shop floor showing information coming off machines at our additive centers in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. We know the state of those machines, what they are printing and what materials they are using. If you look at sites as a globally distributed manufacturing supply chain, digital is going to be a key element to that.