GE & AM: a historical perspective, ramping up and what next?

An auxiliary power unit (APU) for the Leonardo AW189 helicopter (image credit: Safran)

Everyone has heard of GE, or General Electric. True? That big American company that makes fridges, washing machines, lights and so on…

Before the company’s ventures into the additive manufacturing (AM) industry—beyond being an early adopter of the technologies—that’s certainly how I thought about it. But over the last 12 months, AM projects have been coming thick and fast, and I decided to take a closer look. 

In broad brush strokes, GE is a huge US multinational company, incorporated in New York on the Dow Jones stock exchange, and is currently moving its global headquarters to Boston, Massachusetts (from Fairfield, Connecticut)—a move scheduled to be completed 2018. The company ranks high on the Fortune 500 list, and was this year placed as the thirteenth largest company in the USA with gross revenue figures of 111.5 billion USD.

The company’s history is a fascinating one, dating back 125 years. In 1892, General Electric (which has never changed its name) was formed through the merger of the Edison General Electric Company of Schenectady, New York, and the Thomson-Houston Electric Company of Lynn, Massachusetts. Four years later, in 1896, GE was one of the 12 original companies listed on the Dow Jones Industrial average, and today it is the only original company to still be listed.

That century and a quarter has resulted in many changes and vast growth for this industrial giant, involving countless mergers, acquisitions and divestments. Of note is the sale of the division best known to the public—its appliance division, which was sold to Haier Group for $5.4 million at the beginning of 2016.

As of 2017, GE comprises ten independent business operations:

  • GE Aviation;
  • GE Capital;
  • GE Digital;
  • GE Energy Connections;
  • GE Healthcare;
  • GE Lighting;
  • GE Oil & Gas;
  • GE Power;
  • GE Renewable Energy; and
  • the most recent, GE Additive.

GE, more specifically GE Aviation, provides perhaps the best example of AM user evolution. This division of the company has been using additive technologies for more than two decades, having been among the earliest adopters.

Recently, I heard GE Aviation’s chief executive officer (CEO) Mohammad Ehteshami speaking at the Materialise World Summit (MWS) in Belgium about GE’s initial foray into AM, both in-house and via a local service provider in Cincinnati, one Morris Technologies. Ehteshami has been with the company for 31 years, steering the development of one of the world’s largest and most powerful jet engines. Much of his presentation has been published in a couple of GE reports with some delightful perspective and further details.

GE Aviation’s relationship with Morris Technologies—led by Greg Morris, whose reputation across the AM industry is legendary—began back in the 1990s in the traditional way, for engine prototypes that could be iterated rapidly. Over time, as the additive processes and materials improved and experience increased, projects progressed, as did the relationship with Morris. Ehteshami and his team were developing the LEAP engine at this time and had hit a roadblock with a complex part that required a multiple component assembly—the now famous fuel nozzle—and considered the possibility that AM might offer a solution. They didn’t know how, but they knew a man who might.  

They swore Morris to secrecy and sent him the computer file with the drawing of the intricate nozzle tip. He printed it from a nickel alloy and invited the team over a few days later. ‘I remember that day like today,’ Ehteshami said. ‘I was excited but also disturbed. I knew that we [had] found a solution, but I also saw that this technology could eliminate what we’ve done for years and years and put a lot of pressure on our financial model.’

So (relatively) quickly, Ehteshami took action and bought the company in 2012. This was the first compelling sign that GE was serious about AM. The news of the Morris acquisition got a great deal of media and industry attention at the time, but it was all focused on the part— that fuel nozzle and the LEAP engine. What was not fully understood back then was GE’s big picture vision for AM.  

The past 12 months have gone some way to fill that picture in. It was about this time last year that GE Aviation set the AM and 3D printing industry alight once again, with the news that it was set to acquire two European metal AM vendors—SLM Solutions (in Germany) and Arcam (in Sweden).

Negotiations didn’t quite go according to plan, but the 1.6 billion USD deal finally went ahead with the acquisitions of a metal powder bed fusion technology company, Concept Laser (also in Germany), and the electron beam melting technology company Arcam. There has been much debate about the size of this deal and the implications for the AM industry in terms of metal AM competitors and users of these two acquired brands. Some argue that GE is setting out to monopolize the metal AM part of the industry, particularly for aerospace applications, but others argue that it will drive developments, applications and, ultimately, adoption across the entire industry.   

I am still on the fence, it could go either way, but the aerospace angle cannot be overstated. GE certainly was a client of Renishaw and EOS—indeed, the LEAP engine fuel nozzles are currently qualified on EOS machines. How long it will take them to transfer this to the Concept Laser systems—if indeed they do/can—remains to be seen.

At this point, it is hard to argue that GE is not seeking to dominate this sector. Since the acquisitions, GE has gone on to separate additive out from the Aviation division, with the establishment of a dedicated division called GE Additive towards the end of last year. This independent division quickly went on to make a series of impressive launches including opening the first of several Customer Experience Centers, in Munich, Germany. The intent is to set up a center of AM excellence, furnished with around 10 AM machines from Concept Laser and Arcam and operated by up to 50 GE Additive employees to provide services as well as hands-on training and instruction for customers.

The further intent is to replicate this model all around the world to ‘expose and engrain the additive technology to manufacturers worldwide,’ according to Robert Griggs, general manager of the customer experience centers for GE Additive. So, while aerospace will still be a dominant application, it is certainly not the only focus. With the Arcam platform in particular, medical applications are proliferating along a similar growth curve. This point is supported by GE Additive’s announcement just this month of its formal collaboration with Stryker.

GE Additive has, in just a few weeks, made a number of important AM-related announcements. It has added its proprietary Predix platform to Concept Laser machines; confirmed its partnership with Stryker and announced a similar collaboration with Oerlikon; set up an education funding initiative with 400 schools to receive 3D printers; and perhaps most significantly, based on all its newly acquired IP plus decades of knowledge, announced the development of a new, large frame metal AM machine. Names ATLAS, this powder bed system is being developed to build parts up to 1 meter in the X and Y axes.  

Despite GE’s size and access to funding, it is interesting to note that partnerships/collaboration are still a priority. The most recent relationships, with Stryker and Oerlikon, are still to bear fruit. But GE’s history in this regard highlights the real opportunities that exist.

And just last week, French aviation company Safran announced that it had obtained certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) for a critical metal additively manufactured gas turbine engine part. The part—a nozzle—is a core component within an auxiliary power unit (APU) for the Leonardo AW189 helicopter. This successful certification means that Safran can roll out the nozzles across other turbine models, validating AM as a means of production for these high-stress parts.

Safran has disclosed that the nozzle was produced using the selective laser melting (SLM) process with a Hastelloy X (nickel-based) material. Moreover, the part is now 35 percent lighter than its conventionally-machined predecessor and has consolidated an eight-part assembly into a four-part assembly.  

The Safran nozzle comes from CFM International, a decades old collaborative venture between GE Aviation and Safran Aircraft Engines.

GE’s additive growth trajectory in recent years has been phenomenal, the result of a multi-faceted approach to the entire ecosystem of technologies driven by high-value applications.

Where GE Additive goes from here is hard to guess, so I will leave you with GE’s own words from its investor relations page for 2017: ‘We’re not done yet. Expect continued transformation in 2017 and beyond.’

About Rachel Park

Rachel is a passionate advocate of additive manufacturing/3D printing technologies and the industry that has sprung up around it. However, as the hype and hyperbole has gathered momentum, her aim is always to offer a reasoned voice in the midst of inflated expectations and to cut through the noise in order to provide a realistic outlook of how things are.