Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Saturday, December 27, 2014
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Adding the Next Layer to Additive Manufacturing 

Additive manufacturing has begun to generate real excitement within the larger manufacturing community. For a long time in many industrial sectors, additive has been known as a great tool for rapidly prototyping new design concepts. But today the technology is on the cusp of reaching a new, critical level of innovation—so long as industry is there to help it along.

GE has been developing additive technologies since the early 1990s, but within GE’s research labs, the first signs that additive was about to take off appeared about five years ago. It was not so much a Eureka moment, but rather a natural reaction to helping our industrial businesses address a more competitive manufacturing landscape. GE’s served industries were experiencing much greater pressures to go faster and push design concepts to levels that conventional manufacturing processes could not easily meet.

Over the next few years, for example, GE’s Aviation business will introduce more new engine platforms than it has in the last few decades. This requires a whole new level of capability in the speed of innovation and design of new parts and components. Increasingly, we have turned to a new toolkit of additive technologies to help address these challenges.

Most often when you hear about additive, it’s synonymous with 3D printing. But for GE and many industry insiders, we know 3D printing is one of a broad suite of creative tools that you can work with in additive manufacturing. Laser sintering, coating processes like cold spray and electron beam technology are all other additive processes GE scientists and engineers work with as well.

Without a doubt, additive technologies will help us go faster and meet shorter cycles for new product lines. But they give us something else. Additive technologies give us the ability to develop advanced materials concurrently with design. This is radically changing how manufacturing is done. It no longer has to be a sequential process where you wait for the design to be completed before determining your material selection and manufacturing approach. It will be a non-linear world that is more flexible and moves at faster speeds. For example, if you are not happy with the design of a part, tools exist to change the parameters of your CAD model and reprint it. With conventional manufacturing, that flexibility and ease of performing iteration after iteration just doesn’t exist.

Additive manufacturing in and of itself is exciting and transformational, not only for the process technology toolkit it encompasses, but also for the mindset it requires to succeed. New, concurrent interactions and interdependencies between design, materials, and manufacturing will be required. This is imperative not only because we can create structures at a pace and with features never before seen, but additive manufacturing also allows us to concurrently create new material properties. This opens up a whole new paradigm, but also requires new analytical and design tools, special materials, and a whole new way of managing innovation.

Late last year, GE’s Aviation business acquired additive developer and manufacturer Morris Technologies. It will help us begin to address what is a key challenge for industry going forward: bringing it to scale. With the Morris acquisition, we will have a full-scale additive manufacturing production facility…and we will need it.

In 2016, GE will enter a new jet engine into service called the CFM LEAP—the first in GE’s line to incorporate 3D-printed parts. Specifically, it will be a combustion component that would not be possible to make using conventional processes. By 2020, more than 100,000 additive parts are expected to be in service. GE also has plans to produce a low-cost ultrasound transducer for Healthcare through additive manufacturing, and expects to find more applications through other businesses, which will add significantly to the workload within our production facility..

The promise of additive is palpable; realizing its full potential will require us to address gaps and enable new capabilities.

As an industry, we have to find ways to go faster. For all of the time you can save in the design phase, the actual printing or production of parts using additive technologies is still too slow. To help address this challenge, we have a joint technology development agreement with Sigma Labs Inc. to develop in-process inspection technologies of additive components with the goal of reducing production time up to 25%.

Ultimately, we need a global ecosystem of collaborators working together to advance the industry and drive new innovation models. For companies like GE to maximize the full opportunity with additive, we know we have to help others in the supply chain grow in scale and capability. Toward that end, GE convened a summit on additive manufacturing last year that brought together key industry players and experts from around the world to discuss the current and future state of the industry. We will continue to engage the additive community to foster and bring about more collaboration and advancements going forward.

This past June, GE had a strong presence at the RAPID 3D Printing Conference in Pittsburgh. At the conference, we launched two additive manufacturing quests that have invited the participation of external innovators and entrepreneurs. One of the quests is a design challenge for the design of new metal brackets for our jet engines; the second is a production challenge to facilitate new ideas for improving production capabilities. The end goal for both of these is foster a community of experts and new ideas to advance additive manufacturing.

Following the Summit, scientist and engineers in our Additive Manufacturing Lab hosted a Topology Optimization Summit at our Research Lab in Upstate NY. Again, the goal here was to understand how we could new software enabled tools could help strengthen capabilities and what we can create with this amazing technology.

As we look the future, it’s clear that additive’s role in manufacturing will only grow. It won’t entirely replace conventional manufacturing, but its footprint will continue to build layer by layer in the manufacturing of new parts and products.   

About the Author

Christine is Technical Director for Manufacturing and Materials Technologies at GE, based at GE’s Global Research Center. Christine is responsible for working across the company and with strategic partners to develop and implement new process and materials developments for products and manufacturing. In addition to working with the product teams across GE, Christine leads 450 researchers at Global Research; her team is located across US, Europe, and Asia.

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