The industrial fringe of Greenville, South Carolina, isn’t the most obvious place to go looking for a glimpse of things to come. But tucked behind railroad tracks and boxy factories you’ll find GE Power’s new Advanced Manufacturing Works, which opened in April. It’s changing how humans make things.
Larger than two football fields and emblazoned with a giant GE monogram, the facility is like a massive toolbox from the future. It holds a sleek “microjet” cutter that sends a laser beam through a thin stream of water and cuts shapes into the hardest metals that are so precise they look almost alien (see below). There are rows of industrial-grade 3D printers and ovens with argon atmospheres that cure parts made from light and heat resistant supermaterial called ceramic matrix composites (CMCs). Elsewhere, a robot nicknamed Autonomous Prime after the Transformers character Optimus Prime, scans its work area with LIDAR eyes — the same technology used by Google in self-driving cars — and services a computer-controlled milling machine. Much of the technology here comes embedded with sensors that stream data over secure Industrial Internet links into the cloud for analysis and insights.
When GE Reports visited, machines at the plant were crafting sinuous compressor blades for the world’s largest jet engine, ceramic shrouds for gas turbines and other parts with shapes so complex and from materials so new that just a few years ago they would have been a glimmer in engineers’ eyes. “This facility is the bridge between the lab and reality,” says Kurt Goodwin, the GE manager who runs the plant. “It’s an incubator. We collaborate with engineers to allow them to realize their big ideas and help turn them into a process that you can do reliably over again at the right price.”
Goodwin, who wears glasses, sports a gray beard and has the demeanor of a friendly university professor, says that “Leonardo had the idea for the helicopter, but it took Igor Sikorsky 400 years to make it a reality. We have the tools to help our inventors figure things out here and now and get their ideas into mass production right away.”
GE Power invested $75 million to build the plant. It stands right next to the company’s huge Greenville campus, the massive factory where GE Power makes the world’s largest gas turbines, which weigh hundreds of tons but hold parts made to hair’s-breadth accuracy. Its engineers, as well as their colleagues from other GE energy business, GE Oil & Gas and GE Global Research, will use the new facility to try new design and manufacturing ideas, quickly produce test components and then figure out how to make the best designs in large volumes. GE calls this exchange of knowledge and technology the “GE Store.”This is the second such GE facility to open this spring. Earlier in April, GE opened the Center for Additive Technology Advancement in Pittsburgh, which is helping GE take “additive” manufacturing methods like 3D printing mainstream.
Goodwin says his business needed the Advanced Manufacturing Works to keep pace with customer demands. “It’s incredible how fast the world is moving,” he says. “The expectations for improvement from the market are mind-boggling. Our factory next door is the largest in the world and it’s already optimized to produce gas turbines at maximum capacity. The workers there have a lot of great ideas but they don’t have the time to play around.”
The tools here include the latest machines and big-data analytics, but also the right people. The plant, which will have 80 workers, already employs materials scientists with PhDs, engineers and machinists who spent decades honing their craft. “We handpicked this team of people who are resourceful, solution-oriented and they don’t panic when something goes wrong,” Goodwin says. “They know how to fail fast. Together, they can solve just about anything.”
The typical task usually starts as a 3D computer-assisted design file, or CAD, of an early prototype that arrives at their workstations over the Internet. “We want the designers to show us their ugly baby, when the design is just 80 percent finished,” says Blake Fulton, a materials engineer at the plant. “We’ve learned that at this stage they are much more willing to accept feedback.”
Fulton and his colleagues then proceed to make a 3D model of the design. It can be printed from plastic or metal, or even cut out from wood.
In the past, designers would FedEx their files to contractors, who would produce the models and ship them back weeks later. The direct digital feed to Fulton’s 3D printers allows designers to make many drawing iterations in just days and see what they look like in real life. “This is what we call rapid prototyping,” Fulton says.
Goodwin’s workers are also test-driving entire manufacturing processes. GE Aviation is already putting 3D-printed parts inside jet engines, but when Goodwin wanted to apply the same technology to gas turbines — they include many of the same parts as jets but are much larger — he started running into obstacles.
The type of 3D printer GE Aviation is using is called a direct metal laser melting machine. It uses a laser beam to fuse layers of fine metal powder together and grow the part from the ground up. But Goodwin’s parts were too large and took too long to print on DMLM machines to be economical.
Goodwin told his team to find a more cost-effective machine. Since 3D printing is still so new, the only faster machine they could find was a 3D printer with two laser beams that wasn’t even on the market. “We bought three of those,” Goodwin says.
It was a risky move and problems quickly popped up. “We followed the instructions, but the metallurgy wasn’t good.” His team spent four months analyzing 200 different software parameters and made 400 hardware modifications before they debugged the machines. This spring, they used them to optimize the design of a 3D-printed fuel nozzle for GE’s latest-generation gas turbine and bring it to production. The new design lowers the machine’s nitrogen oxide emissions and increases power output and efficiency. “We were able to run through 10 design iterations in just a few months and then ship the final version into production four months later,” Goodwin says. “Normally it would take us a year.”
GE uses its Predix software platform to stream data over the Industrial Internet into the cloud, analyze it and report problems and solutions back to the team.
These feedback loops are part of a concept GE calls the “digital thread.” Clay Johnson, GE Power’s chief information officer, says the plant still shows only a fragment of what’s coming. He says the digital thread will be constantly moving data from customers and suppliers to GE and back. “The system will be getting real-time feedback from sensors on parts inside machines,” Johnson says. “In the future the part will realize it’s getting degraded, automatically can reorder itself to be made, and schedules the field engineer to be on-site to install it. It’s Uber for industry.”
But technology won’t solve everything. Said Steve Bolze, GE Power CEO, after Friday’s opening ceremony: “We have robotics and 3D printers, but this place is really about the people who trust each other enough to take risks together and create the future.”