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.

Steve Heller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.