Exclusive Interview With General Electric Company's Chief Manufacturing Scientist Stephan Biller

Talking the latest 3-D printing developments and more.

Steve Heller
Steve Heller
Jul 14, 2014 at 6:02PM

In the following video, 3-D printing specialist Steve Heller interviews Stephan Biller, chief manufacturing scientist at General Electric (NYSE:GE).

Topics covered include:

  • The role of a chief manufacturing scientist and how it relates to General Electric's "Brilliant Factory" concept
  • An update on the LEAP engine
  • Where 3-D printing fits into GE's advanced manufacturing initiatives
  • How GE used 3-D printing and community-driven efforts to cultivate innovation
  • What it's like to work for GE

During the interview, Biller states that the 3-D printed bracket being shown on camera is much more "pedestrian" than a jet engine bracket, but he stands corrected. The bracket was in fact modeled after a jet engine bracket.

A full transcript follows the video.

Steve Heller: Hey Fools, Steve Heller here. I'm joined today with Stephan Biller. He is Chief Manufacturing Scientist at General Electric. Thank you so much for being here, Stephan.

Stephan Biller: Hi, Steve.

Heller: We really appreciate your time here today.

Biller: No problem.

Heller: Jumping right in, as a Chief Manufacturing Scientist what do you do, exactly, for GE?

Biller: I do a couple of things. First of all, I try to help define the advanced manufacturing strategy for General Electric, working with all of our businesses, looking for synergies between different research topics, so that we don't do work just for one of our businesses but try to leverage that across multiple businesses, thereby reducing the cost of research.

Heller: Interesting. Let's talk about these brilliant factories that you're working to develop. How does your advanced manufacturing strategy fit into the equation of brilliant factories? How are you learning about brilliant factories?

Biller: Brilliant factories is really what we want to do at General Electric, trying to implement the digital thread into our 400 or so factories. The key there is really to connect, from product development to manufacturing engineering, then connecting to the factories, to our supply chain partners, through our service shops, and close the loop back to engineering.

If we are successful in implementing that digital thread across the company, really what we're going to get is two things. It's going to help us greatly with reducing our time to introduce new products, because we're going to have much faster learning circles between design and manufacturing engineering.

Furthermore, it's going to help us to become much, much more agile for our factories and supply chain, because we'll be able to harvest the real-time information we are getting from the factory floor -- from our machines, controllers, robots, our IT systems, and so forth -- to help optimize our fulfillment throughput and so forth in real time, thereby producing perfect visibility of the operations at General Electric.

Heller: This is part of a larger-scale -- if we zoom out a little bit more -- the Industrial Internet? Does this all fit into that whole vision?

Biller: Yes, I think that's a very good example. The Industrial Internet, we started that a few years ago and we now have just about 1,000 people out in San Ramon, building varied production hard and software for us on a platform which we call Predix.

What those guys are trying to help our customers with is trying to get better performance, better utilization, out of their assets.

For example, a jet engine produces just about a terabyte of data during a single flight. What you want to do is, you want to actually analyze those data and help them improve the performance of that engine, and determine is there some maintenance you've got to do, and things like that.

Now turn that to your factories, and think about, "Oh, interesting. I can do the same thing on my factory floor, because I'm running machines there too." Then I connect those machines and get to the systems level, looking at that systems level in the factory, and optimizing the factory in real time.

Then I can even blow past the four doors of the factory and say, "Now I'm going to include my supply chain," using technologies like RFID and so forth, thereby getting real-time data from my supply chain, and then optimize that.

The farther you go on a systems level, the better you are off, because it allows you to take away inefficiencies in the supply chain and the factory, and so forth.

Heller: It's all about learning about systems intelligence, how everything fits into each other, and leveraging that data to improve outcomes for GE's business, and the customer's business.

Biller: That's exactly right.

Heller: Moving on, I wanted to talk about the LEAP jet engine, particularly -- we're at a 3-D printing conference -- the fuel nozzle. I wanted to know if you could update us at all, how the progress is going with that?

Biller: Progress is going great. We're making great progress. The LEAP is obviously going to be one of our most important products we're going to introduce. By 2020 we believe that we're going to have printed about 100,000 additive parts going into the LEAP.

We're really taking advantage of that new technology, and it's a very, very exciting time. We're working very hard on it together with our business partners in aviation, and there's lots and lots of excitement around that.

I think we're going to introduce that engine faster; usually in aviation you think about, "How long is it going to take you to make the 250th engine?" That will be faster than it has been ever before.

Heller: Interesting. GE in particular is pioneering larger-scale 3-D printing manufacturing, with real metal in jet engines, harsh environments. Is that correct?

Biller: Yes, that is exactly right. That was the idea of our acquisition of Morris, of course, was the basis for us being able to do that.

Heller: Right, to give you the expertise and understanding, and be able to push the boundaries of 3-D printing technology to fit your own operations.

Biller: Yes.

Heller: Very good. "Advanced manufacturing" covers a lot of different topics. In your opinion, professionally, what is your take on where 3-D printing, additive manufacturing, fits into advanced manufacturing?

Biller: When I think of advanced manufacturing, I think of two parts. One is product enabling, the other one is cost reducing and improving agility and throughput and quality, and so forth.

Additive manufacturing actually fits into both, but it's mostly, I would say, product enabling. We can make parts we have never been able to make before. We can now reduce the number of parts in that fuel nozzle, I think, from over 30 to just a couple. Those are really amazing changes within manufacturing, that additive manufacturing enables.

Heller: Very interesting. Moving on here, the biggest things you learned -- actually, I wanted to switch gears here for a second.

I wanted to talk about these brackets here, and what you've learned from these, and how can you apply them to the higher-level factory?

Biller: This used to be our original bracket. This is a bracket from the aviation business. Try to feel that.

Heller: This is probably a solid 10 pounds.

Biller: We have been doing that for a long time. What we wanted to do was challenge and try out the new crowdsourcing movement. You might be thinking, "You know, for aviation, you really want to think of crowdsourcing? That's a good idea?"

Yes. What we did was put that challenge out there, and we had about 700 people submit designs for this bracket, with the same functionality. Now feel this. This has been designed and additively made.

Heller: It's 84% lighter, is that correct?

Biller: It's 84% lighter.

Heller: This is a jet engine bracket. This is a model of a jet engine bracket, that holds a jet engine to the wing, is that correct?

Biller: I think it's close to the door. I think it's much more "pedestrian" than that. But the key here is that this bracket is a lot lighter, and the winning design came from Indonesia, from a guy we had never heard of.

Heller: The power of open collaboration there is really ...

Biller: Yes, and I think it's fair to say we are just getting into this. We really wanted to test this out. We don't really know exactly where it's going, Steve, to be honest with you. But look at the power. What we wanted to demonstrate to our businesses is, this is a very, very powerful tool you should have in your hip pocket, and try to figure out new stuff.

Whether that ends up on an engine or not, I don't think it's as important as for our engineers and our managers to learn that this is a tool.

Heller: To make fundamentally better products.

Biller: Yes.

Heller: Very good. I wanted to talk to you about the culture at GE. What is it like to work at General Electric?

Biller: GE is an amazing place. I'm fortunate enough to work at GE Global Research, and the best thing for me is, if you look at our Chairman, our CEO Jeff Immelt's priorities, innovation is number one. He talks about advanced manufacturing all the time, so the priority the company is putting on both innovation and on manufacturing in particular, it's really magnificent. For a guy like me, who loves research and manufacturing, there's really no better place to be.

Heller: It feels like, even though it's such a large business, it almost has a small business, entrepreneurial spirit to it.

Biller: It absolutely does. Most of our research is funded by the businesses, so they really have to want this. If we don't produce what they want, they're just going to cut off all funding, so we are really on that cusp of innovation where we do market-driven innovation. The business wants it, we do it. They don't want it, we're not going to do it.

Heller: It's almost like a start-up environment, in an unusual way.

Biller: It is, and the best part of that start-up environment is, if I have an idea, everybody in that environment can help me make this. If I have an idea and I want to push this, I have like 50 different disciplines up at GE Research, all contributing in a different way, so I can assemble a team that, honestly, no start-up can really assemble in that complexity. It's very powerful, and a lot of fun.

Heller: Great. Thank you so much for your time today, Stephan.

Biller: Thank you. Take care.