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Fear, Frenzy and the Birth of an Industry at GE's 3-D Printing Lab
Thursday, February 13, 2014 -  Travis Hessman

There's a tsunami coming and the industry had better learn to swim. Fast. 

That was my impression walking out of GE Aviation'sAdditive Development Center last month.

I'd just spent the afternoon chatting about fuel injectors with Greg Morris, strategy and business lead at the ADC and co-founder and CEO of its previous incarnation, Morris Technologies.

GE will begin printing injectors for the LEAP jet engine in 2016 and ramp up to about 35,000 per year just four years after that. It is the biggest and most ambitious additive manufacturing project ever undertaken by anyone in the industry. By a wide margin.

It's the first real test of industrial 3-D printing, the first real-world experiment in (relatively) high-volume production. The chance to see something like that unfold, to see an emerging industry actually emerge, doesn't come often.

The plan was to explore the logistics—or logistical plan—GE is setting up for a piece in IW's sister publication, Material Handling & Logistics (Will 3-D Supply Meet GE’s Sky-High Demand?)

After all, the supply chain and strategy GE develops for this project will define the industry for years to come. It will absolutely set the standard.

As Morris told me during our conversation, "This project alone has the promise to change the whole industry… It's a paradigm shift in how we design and manufacture certain components for our industrial products."

And that seemed perfect for MH&L.

One small problem, however. It turns out the production facility that will build these nozzles doesn't exactly exist yet. And GE has slim pickings—if any—if it hopes to acquire one with the capability and scale it needs to meet its goals.

"The fact is, there doesn't today exist a supply chain for production components," Morris said. "There is no company I can go to around the world to produce even 10,000 fuel nozzles at the price we need. They don't have the equipment capacity; they don't have the right generation machine or aerospace certification."

And that is terrifying.

According to Morris, there aren't enough machines or technicians in the world today to come anywhere close to providing the 100,000 injectors GE wants finished in the next six years. And even if there were, there is still no system to ensure consistency or quality in the raw materials they require, and the technology to scan and inspect internal structures and integrity is primitive at best.

In other words, the industry is nowhere near ready for this kind of scale up—not at GE or anywhere else.

But it's going to happen nonetheless.

And that really is a little terrifying. But it's also exciting.

By pushing this project ahead, GE is pushing the entire industry to accelerate and grow and adapt much faster than it would on its own. Much faster than anyone involved might have otherwise been comfortable moving.

So, if there aren’t enough machines in the world to make the parts, it means the machine makers are going to start making more machines. If there aren't standards in place, they will be defined. If there aren't enough technicians, more will be trained and hired; if technology is lacking, innovations will come.

There is simply no other choice—things have to move, and they have to move quickly.

And that's just the start.

This is one piece—just one tiny part produced for just one company.

GE is only the first of dozens of major manufacturers going additive, and the fuel injector is only one piece of hundreds that will be printed. But it alone is signaling a major ramp up that will rock the entire market. When the rest of the industry catches up, that effect will be compounded exponentially.

"There is a tsunami coming that is going to overwhelm many a supplier," Morris said. "GE is just one of multiple large OEMs that will be taxing the supply chain for raw materials, machines, services, inspection equipment, post-processing, even basic logistics. It's going to put a very, very big strain on a very, very limited supply chain."

And all this means everything in the industry is going to get very serious, very soon. Stay tuned.

 

 

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