How 3-D Printing Is Taking Center Stage at General Electric Company

For those curious about how 3-D printing will usher in the so-called "next industrial revolution," General Electric could be a valuable case study. Parts like GE's Leap jet engine fuel nozzle come to mind as examples of lighter, simpler 3-D printed components. But fuel nozzles are just the tip of the iceberg.

Source: Flickr/Jeffrey Turner.

GE believes 3-D printing should go hand-in-hand with other technologies to bring its concept of "advanced manufacturing" to life. In GE's factory of the future, 3-D printing could touch every step of the production process, and this manufacturing revolution could arrive sooner than you think.

One small step for GE, one giant Leap
To date, the hype around 3-D printing at GE has revolved primarily around its aviation business. With the 2012 acquisition of Morris Technologies and Rapid Quality Manufacturing (RQM), GE signaled that it was serious about 3-D printing; but the technology's initial impact was focused on the existing projects in or around the Cincinnati area. That's where the 130 employees from Morris and RQM were located, right down the road from GE's aviation headquarters.

As a result, the aerospace industry served as the testing ground for 3-D printing techniques at GE. The process of selective laser sintering (SLS), for example, was used in the creation of the jet engine fuel nozzle, which reduced the parts required in production from 20 to just one. GE ultimately aims to achieve a run rate of 45,000 fuel nozzles per year from its 3-D printing operations, but hitting that target could take the better part of this decade. For now, GE estimates that it will produce a mere 100,000 printed parts for aviation by 2020, according to Christine Furtross, GE's general manager for technology.

GE's LEAP engine. Source: Safran.

The success of components like the jet fuel nozzle will lead to further investment across the business. The next phase will see this technology make a more profound impact on GE's entire portfolio, including oil and gas, power and water, health care, and transportation. What's more, GE will find new ways to make these operations more competitive by pushing the limits of 3-D printing, and focusing on processes, not just parts. As Furtross explained at the Inside 3D Printing conference earlier this year, "It's not just about making a final part, but that whole process makes you more competitive," she said.

The rise of advanced manufacturing
So, what exactly will this next phase look like? Well, it's already picking up steam in various parts of the country. Last summer, GE built a Rapid Prototyping Center in Louisville to create a faster feedback loop in the product development process. GE credits this new approach as key in reducing overall prototyping costs by 80 percent, on average, at the site.

Coincidentally, Louisville is also home to GE's long-standing manufacturing facility known as Appliance Park. Once seen as a relic of outdated American manufacturing, Appliance Park has rebounded in recent years, thanks to its central location relative to GE's core market, a changing global labor market, and -- you guessed it -- the efficiency gains from high-tech manufacturing methods. It's no surprise that GE's doubling down on rapid prototyping next door to a facility that's added 400 jobs so far this year.

GE Monogram oven, a product of Appliance Park. Source: General Electric

What we're seeing in Louisville is also evidence of high-tech manufacturing being focused in geographic "clusters" of GE factories. Economists often refer to the "clustering" of competitors due to the spillover effects of new technologies and information-sharing, but in this case, GE's employing it alone. And the industrial giant is hoping it can translate to greater efficiency and innovation.

The latest example of a GE manufacturing cluster will soon exist a few hundred miles away in the western region of the Carolinas. On Tuesday, in fact, GE announced that it broke ground on a cutting-edge advanced manufacturing facility in Greenville, S.C. The facility for GE's power and water business will open in 2015, create an estimated 80 jobs initially, and require GE to invest $400 million during the next decade to expand the company's advanced manufacturing capabilities.

The Greenville factory will be the first of its kind and, according to GE, will "serve as an incubator for innovative advanced manufacturing process development and rapid prototyping." GE believes it will allow the company to "design, test, iterate and bring its products to market for customers quicker than ever." What's more, it will be right down the road from another GE facility that broke ground in Asheville, N.C., in November of last year. That facility just so happens to be a hub for producing high-tech components for none other than GE Aviation's flagship product, the Leap engine. Hardly a coincidence.

3-D printing prepares for takeoff
The transition from prototyping to parts to processes will take time to unfold, but GE's already pushing the envelope by integrating 3-D printing into a new era of manufacturing. For those skeptical of the power of this technology, consider the following quote from GE's CEO Jeff Immelt last year:

[T]here's stuff that's like just a cartoon. And there's stuff that you say, hey this is really worth time, attention, money and effort. This is the latter not the former.

For those interested in this space, keep in mind that the 3-D printing revolution won't happen overnight. In GE's factories in Cincinatti, Louisville, and Greenville, however, it's already starting to take root.

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