GE's Greg Morris Discusses the Formation of GE Additive
Michael Molitch-Hou posted on March 06, 2017 | speaks with GE’s Greg Morris about the birth of GE Additive.

Additive manufacturing (AM) had a massive year in 2016. Fueled by continued interest in industrial 3D printing, large companies and new start-ups invested further into the space. And, while the commercial introduction of HP’s industrial AM technology was important, the big news of the year was GE Aviation’s acquisition of metal 3D printer manufacturers Concept Laser and Arcam.

This play may have come as surprise to some in the industry, but it was actually part of a longer history of GE’s interest in the technology that, in many ways, began with the purchase of AM engineering and service providers Morris Technologies and Rapid Quality Manufacturing (RQM) in 2012. To get a better idea for how the path led to the creation of GE Additive, spoke with GE Aviation’s Rick Kennedy, Media Relations manager, and Greg Morris, Strategy Growth leader.

The Fuel Nozzle

Just 15 minutes from the GE Global Operations Center in Cincinnati, Morris Technologies and its sister company RQM had been working with GE for some time since it was established in 1994 by Greg Morris, Wendell Morris and Bill Noack. The relationship began with rapid prototyping projects, and it wasn’t until the exploration of the company’s new LEAP jet engine series in 2004 that Morris Technologies was enlisted for the production of a 3D-printed metal end part.

The LEAP engine from CFM International features a number of cutting-edge technologies, including a 3D-printed fuel nozzle, initially designed with the help of Morris Technologies. (Image courtesy of CFM International.)
The LEAP engine from CFM International features a number of cutting-edge technologies, including a 3D-printed fuel nozzle, initially designed with the help of Morris Technologies. (Image courtesy of CFM International.)

“[GE] treated it like a military classified program,” Kennedy said. “It was a secret program at GE to do this fuel nozzle for next-generation engines. All the employees had to sign proprietary agreements that they wouldn’t tell people about it. And we were on this journey for years. For years!” This top secret fuel nozzle would go onto become one of the biggest design success stories in AM.

Kennedy pointed out that a jet engine is the ultimate definition of a long product cycle, requiring years of development, design and investment for something meant to remain on the market for 30 years. Therefore, when developing its new generation of jet engines, GE sought to bring something to market that would vastly outperform preceding models.

CFM International’s 3D-printed fuel nozzle reduces part count from 18 to just one. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
CFM International’s 3D-printed fuel nozzle reduces part count from 18 to just one. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)

One of the keys to such an engine, GE decided, was the fuel nozzle—a complex part with elaborate interior geometries and the ability to withstand thousands of degrees of heat. But when the team at GE finished designing the part, it realized that there was no way to manufacture it. With almost 20 subcomponents and interior channels as thin as a human hair, the fuel nozzle could not be made via traditional processes. That’s when long-time GE collaborator Greg Morris stepped in.

With powder bed metal 3D printing, Morris Technologies was able to fabricate the part. Thanks to the geometric freedom of 3D printing technology, it was possible to consolidate this 18-part design, intricate channels included, into a single piece.

At the same time, the component is 25 percent lighter and five times more durable than previous generations of nozzles. When 19 of these nozzles are installed on a LEAP jet engine, the fuel nozzle design helps to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 15 percent.

GE Aviation was so impressed with the work that Morris Technologies and RQM were performing that it bought the companies in 2012. The fuel nozzle, however, was just the beginning. “Obviously, a lot of the reason GE Aviation had acquired us had to do with securing intellectual property and capacity related to the LEAP fuel nozzle,” Morris explained. “It was a very successful project and, of course, that led to us thinking about how else might we leverage AM. That’s when GE really started to think beyond the fuel nozzle. I think they always had, but I think we were helping to accelerate that journey.”

The Turboprop

Manufactured through CFM International, a joint venture between GE Aviation and Safran, the LEAP engine series has already received over 13,400 orders valued at $140 billion from customers that include Airbus, Boeing and Comac. GE went on to set up an AM facility dedicated to mass production of the fuel nozzle in Auburn, Alabama, and has already begun shipping the engines to customers.

After the success of the LEAP engine, the next step for GE Aviation was to take what it had learned from the development of the fuel nozzle and apply it to something even more substantial: an actual engine. Though not as large or complex as a turbofan jet engine traditionally found in civil aircraft, GE set about developing a turboprop engine for a propeller-driven plane.

Made in partnership with Textron Aviation over the course of three years, the Cessna Denali is designed to be a $4.8 million propeller plane that can fly from Los Angeles to Chicago or New York to Miami. As impressive as it was to consolidate 18 subcomponents for the LEAP fuel nozzle, the advanced turboprop engine for the Cessna Denali saw 855 parts reduced to just 12 with 3D printing.

GE Aviation managed to consolidate hundreds of parts into a handful of components with 3D printing. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)
GE Aviation managed to consolidate hundreds of parts into a handful of components with 3D printing. (Image courtesy of GE Aviation.)

Morris relayed the story: “A couple of years ago, we formed a skunk works team internally to GE Aviation—about four or five guys that went off and took one of our small engines that was traditionally manufactured and said, ‘Let’s think about this differently.’”

To demonstrate the power of designing for AM, GE Aviation redesigned one of its legacy engines, the CT7, with 3D printing in mind. In the end, about 35 percent of the engine was made with AM, and these include large structural parts, such as the inlet frame and exhaust case, as well as intricate parts, like fuel nozzles, bearings and sumps and housing. 3D printing assemblies in one piece does away with the need for some fixtures and bolts while also enabling the creation of complex, weight-saving geometries.

With AM, GE Aviation was able to reduce the weight of the engine by 5 percent, thus cutting fuel consumption by 20 percent. At the same time, the CT7 is still capable of providing 1,650 shaft horsepower to the Cessna Denali, about 10 percent more power than other engines in the same class.

The Cessna Denali is a prop plane designed to fly like a private jet. (Image courtesy of Textron Aviation.)
The Cessna Denali is a prop plane designed to fly like a private jet. (Image courtesy of Textron Aviation.) 

Morris pointed out that, while the new turboprop engine is more efficient from a design standpoint, such a design also impacts the overall manufacturing workflow and supply chain. “On the advanced turboprop, we went from 855 distinct components down to 12,” Morris said. “That’s a very powerful capability. What we’ve in essence been able to do is combine multiple pieces into one. Instead of thinking at the part level, we think at the system level. All 855 pieces had a supply chain associated with them. You add tons of shipping logistics, multiple engineers, multiple prints, multiple CAD files.

“Now, you’ve got maybe a couple engineers working on that single part, not 855,” he continued. “You’ve cut your logistics down to building in one machine and in one location. You’ve cut your quality issues down by not having weld joints and brace joints. Then, one of the most important aspects is that you’ve gone from the digital to physical and you’ve maintained the digital thread throughout. I can take that digital file and inspect this complex part by using that digital file. I know exactly what I’ve been able to print and what I’m going to inspect for the life of the product. That is something that is going to play a more and more important role as we go forward.”

Though the Cessna Denali project was aimed at getting GE Aviation into the private jet and prop aircraft niche, the ability to 3D print one-third of an aircraft engine was proof to the company that AM was a disruptive technology.

The Formation of GE Additive

After the turboprop engine was designed, the president and CEO of GE Aviation toured Morris’s facility in Cincinnati. He was so impressed by the work that Morris’s team had done with the turboprop plane that he then brought in Jeff Immelt, CEO of GE, to see the work for himself.

Kennedy explained, “Our chairman Jeffrey Immelt was talking to the head of GE Aviation, David Joyce, and said, ‘This is not just some passing fad. Additive [manufacturing] is a disruptive technology, and there’s no turning back now. We can’t build parts that we’re designing without this technology. We can’t go back to traditional casting.”

Of course, traditional casting and other processes won’t be replaced entirely, but for GE, it became obvious that AM was essential to the future of manufacturing. According to Kennedy, David Joyce is regularly quoted as saying of 3D printing, “Do you want to be on the outside of this technological revolution, or do you want to be on the inside of the revolution?”

In other words, did GE want to continue purchasing 3D printers from others, or did it want to place itself right in the center of the AM industry? By fall 2016, it became clear that GE planned to become a central player in 3D printing by purchasing controlling shares in two leading metal 3D printer manufacturers: Concept Laser and Arcam.

A low pressure turbine blade 3D printed in γ-titanium aluminide with Arcam machines by Avio Aero. (Image courtesy of Avio Aero.)
A low pressure turbine blade 3D printed in γ-titanium aluminide with Arcam machines by Avio Aero. (Image courtesy of Avio Aero.) 

Arcam happened to complement GE Aviation’s business perfectly. The manufacturer of electron beam melting (EBM) 3D printers was already a supplier of EBM machines to Avio Aero, GE’s Italian branch responsible for 3D printing titanium aluminide turbine blades for the GE9x jet engine.

The majority purchase of Concept Laser is somewhat less straightforward. GE had initially planned to buy SLM Solutions, but Elliott Management Corporation, run by activist investor Paul Singer, thwarted the deal by purchasing controlling shares in SLM leading up to the acquisition. In turn, GE Aviation went after Concept Laser, a German manufacturer with a similar technology and a desire for growth.

Now, Kennedy said, GE Aviation has begun the process of creating GE Additive, which will become its own division this fall. Though Concept Laser and Arcam will continue manufacturing their systems for clients in the industry, Kennedy explained that GE will continue to be an important customer for the technology.

Concept Laser manufacturers the largest powder bed fusion metal 3D printer on the market, the X line 2000R. (Image courtesy of Concept Laser.)
Concept Laser manufacturers the largest powder bed fusion metal 3D printer on the market, the X line 2000R. (Image courtesy of Concept Laser.) 

“We’ve laid out some very specific goals,” Kennedy said. “We want this business to earn $1 billion in annual revenues by 2020, which is pretty aggressive. That’s a much bigger pie than exists today.” For some context, the entire 3D printing industry surpassed $5.1 billion in 2015, and various analysts estimate that its worth by 2020 will be between $20 and $30 billion. While $1 billion may be large for the entire industry, GE’s jet engine business alone is worth roughly $30 billion.

Kennedy continued, “Now, part of the way you do that is you have GE acquiring more than 1,000 machines itself over the next 10 years. We’ll grow business by installing the machines in different industries, through our competitors, but also with GE as a customer because we’re the ones who are moving so aggressively into the space as end users.”

To encourage industry growth outside of GE, GE Additive has begun two important programs: a financing program and an educational investment program. GE Additive and GE Capital aims to increase the number of customers that can purchase Arcam and Concept Laser machines with a range of customized financial solutions. It will also invest $10 million over the next five years to put 3D printers into schools, $2 million in Polar 3D desktop polymer 3D printers for primary and secondary schools, and $8 million in metal 3D printers for colleges and universities.

The Future of AM Under GE Additive

Morris’s own experience of being acquired by a large multinational may reflect what will happen to Concept Laser and Arcam. “GE brought a lot of different things to the table,” Morris explained. “There’s the obvious: the financial depth that GE was able to invest in the technology with new machines, resources and more staff. But there’s also a whole network of capability within a company like GE. There are global research centers that we were able to tap into, thousands of PhDs at facilities across the world. We didn’t necessarily tap into every facility, but there are a lot of experts in individual fields that we could tap into: laser experts, electron beam filament experts and the materials expertise at GE is clearly very deep.”

Before he was brought into the fold of GE’s roughly 333,000 employees, Morris’s staff consisted of only 140 people. Arcam and Concept Laser are just as small, but will now receive a sudden infusion of support from GE. “The same story is playing out now with Concept and Arcam, two great companies with two solid technologies. Now, GE has the opportunity to come in and resource them like they've never been resourced before, just like they did for us,” Morris said.

Under GE, these companies will be able to improve their technologies even further, making them bigger and faster with improved quality control and higher throughput. Given GE’s experience in taking metal AM systems and getting them to the point where they can produce critical components for mass production, it’s possible that future machines will become more automated. Users may not have to nail down the vast number of parameters on a 3D printer in order to obtain a repeatable part from the machine.

“I think our unique proposition here is that we’ve got this knowledge,” Morris said. “We have gone through the industrialization process. We know all of the things we had to go through [on our projects], so we can incorporate those learnings into future machine architectures. We’re starting to do some of that now, and we’ll accelerate some of that over the coming years as we come out with equipment that is much better technically, has much better repeatability, much better tolerances, much better process monitoring, much better throughput. And it’s all based on our experience using technology to produce not just fuel tips, but now other components that have very high bars of certification and regulatory hurdles that have to be met. That’s really unique because most equipment manufacturers make equipment, but they haven’t ever lived in the industrial side of the equation, whereas we have.”

Other divisions of GE are starting to obtain the same quality as GE Aviation did with the fuel nozzle and may be ready for end part production in the near future. As GE and other manufacturers come out with machines that can reduce costs through increased throughput, it will see greater widespread use throughout the manufacturing industry, according to Morris. When that happens, it won’t just mean better designed parts, but a real paradigm shift for manufacturing.

“We’re at the dawn, not the day or the dusk, of where this technology is going to go. I applaud GE for taking the steps they have to get involved vertically as they have in the industry. GE, along with some other very good companies, are going to help make this a very neat industry as we move forward,” Morris concluded.

To learn more about GE’s burgeoning AM division, visit the GE Additive website.

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