At the Inside 3-D Printing Conference in New York City, Christine Furstoss, who heads General Electric's (NYSE: GE ) 3-D printing research team, gave a keynote presentation about 3-D printing and how factory floors, tools, skills, and product designs are changing. During the presentation, it came to light that General Electric still has a lot of learning to do before it can advance 3-D printing further into the manufacturing world. According to Furstoss, a better understanding of the science behind 3-D printing -- especially around metal 3-D printing, which often involves metal alloy powders and laser beams -- needs to happen.
In order for General Electric to accomplish this, it must implement a series of "machine controls" or systems that can better monitor the 3-D printing manufacturing process. Furstoss compares the concept of machine controls to building a house in the sense that a builder needs to make sure the two-by-fours are the right places before the drywall can be installed. Of course, monitoring a 3-D print job in a harsh environment where metal powders and lasers are flying around poses a much greater challenge than monitoring a home being built in a quiet neighborhood.
Ultimately, it's going to take time for General Electric to master how to control the environment in which 3-D printed objects are created, but once it does, it can have a higher degree of confidence in the technology's capabilities. Over the next 20 years, General Electric has a vision where 3-D printing "touches" 50% of its manufacturing operations in some way. However, General Electric investors shouldn't take this to mean that 50% of GE's products will be entirely 3-D printed in the future. More than likely, one or more aspects of the design or prototyping process or possibly a component within a bigger system will make use of 3-D printing, which together will affect 50% of GE's products.
In the following video, 3-D printing specialist Steve Heller asks Furstoss to expound upon what she meant by "machine controls" being the Holy Grail of 3-D printing.
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