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Supply Chain News: GE Makes Major Strides in 3D Printing, as Advances in Metals-Based Composition Opens Up Many New Applications


GE's Success and Acquisitions Likely has Other Manufacturers Scrambling to Build their Own Capabilities; Printing Process is Slow, but Still Often Much Faster than Casting and Machining

Nov. 15, 2016
SCDigest Editorial Staff

GE recently said it has invested substantial cash in developing internal capabilities to use 3D printing to make parts for its aircraft engines, which it has then augmented that with recent acquisitions - and that those investments are really paying off.

On top of its own R&D investments, in September GE agreed to buy two European 3D printing-machine manufacturers - Sweden's Arcam AB and Germany's SLM Solutions Group - for more than $1 billion combined. When GE's offer for SLM was rejected by shareholders last month, it turned around and agreed to buy another 3D printing company, offering $599 million for Germany's Concept Laser.

Supply Chain Digest Says...

GE says it takes five days to print a set of nine fuel nozzle injectors at its Alabama facility - but that a similar design would take several weeks to build using traditional methods.

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3D printing isn't just a future possibility for GE - the company says it is ready to go right now, in what could be a blockbuster

Although printed parts are already in service on GE's CFM Leap engine in a small way, the first large scale application will be the company's clean-sheet design for its Advanced Turboprop (ATP) engine, which will power the all-new Cessna Denali aircraft.
Additive parts will cut that engine's weight by 5%, the company says.

GE has also revealed that in a secretive "Skunk Works" style project, it is testing demonstrator jet engine that will use 35% 3D printed parts. That engine was designed, built and tested in just 18 months, and the 3D printing process reduced more than 900 conventionally made parts to just 16 additive manufactured components.

While there has been much interest in 3D printing for replacement parts for machines in many sectors, the relative few number of aircraft engines produced could make it effective for the original parts as well for GE.

"In engineering we always do a trade between weight, cost and efficiency, but additive manufacturing gives you all three at the same time," GE Additive vice president Mohammed Ehiteshami said.

Describing his first exposure to the new technology, Ehiteshami added that "the first time I saw it I couldn't go home. I said 'oh my god, all these 30 years of anxiety over whether I want to make it heavier or stronger, it all can go away!'"

Although production ATPs will be built in Prague, Czech Republic, GE has yet to decide where the parts themselves will printed.

The big breakthrough for GE and others has been the advances in printing using a variety of metal alloys, versus the plastics-based printing used for many other applications.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that engineers at GE's Cincinnati-based engine business initially hoped to use additive machines to create just a portion of the fuel nozzle for its new commercial jet engines, according to Anthony Dean, who managed the team that developed the part for GE Aviation.

"Then we started to get greedy and said, 'Can we print the whole thing?'" Dean told the Wall Street Journal.

So now, the interior of the fuel nozzles is being made entirely through 3D printing, and the company built a $50 million 3D printing factory in Alabama to make the parts in bulk for the new engines.

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The Journal reports that GE has 28 of the machines in use at the Alabama facility and eventually plans to have more than 50. GE says it will produce 6,000 fuel nozzle injectors at the facility this year, and double output next year. The company says it can make a set of nine of the fuel nozzle interiors in five days, rather than the weeks it takes using conventional techniques.

The rapid advances in the metals-based 3D printing technology has caught some industrial companies a bit off guard, many of which are now racing to catch up. GE's pending 3D acquisitions likely will push other companies to act while there are still good 3D technology companies to scoop up, and others to ramp up R&D in 3D printing for parts currently made by traditional means, like machining.

Even though 3D printing of complex parts can seem incredible slow while watching the process, it can often still me much faster than traditional processes, experts says. Printing metal parts makes it easier to build complex structures inside the walls of a part and eliminates multiple stages of casting and welding required for many parts.

For example, GE says it takes five days to print a set of nine fuel nozzle injectors at its Alabama facility - but that a similar design would take several weeks to build using traditional methods.

Proponents for years have been saying that 3D printing capabilities were advancing along a "Moore's Law" type of progress curve, and that what looked at one level like very slow progress was under the covers actually improving very rapidly.

But experts add that to really scale up, manufacturers will need additive machines that can produce more parts at once, rather than building one at a time. But with GE's apparent success, expect manufacturer's by the score to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon very soon.

Is 3D printing really now ready for prime time? How fast will we see adoption? Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.


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