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Soaring to new heights with additive manufacturing at GE Aviation

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GE Aviation is investing heavily in additive manufacturing to help develop the next line of jet engines. As they develop these skills, they seek to not only make better products, but use this to get an edge in delivering new engines faster.

This article evaluates how GE can use additive manufacturing in its product development process to improve quality and decrease costs throughout the product life cycle of its commercial jet engines. Jet engines represent a large opportunity for additive manufacturing for many reasons. For one, the materials used in jet engines are often very expensive because of the demanding strength and temperature requirements found in this application. In these situations, any subtractive manufacturing’ process generates costly waste. Additionally, additive manufacturing can improve product development by simplifying the manufacturing of jet engines by replacing complex sub-assemblies with simpler parts. This was previously impossible in many situations due to the complex geometries and requirements needed by many parts. However, additive manufacturing allows for the combination of components and reduces the need for some parts such as fasteners. Additive manufacturing allows GE to develop products as improvements of existing products, rather than requiring that GE start from scratch. Furthermore, simplifying assemblies can reduce manufacturing time, as well as reduce cost in parts that had significant material waste. This will ultimately lead to an increase in product quality because lighter parts can improve performance, thus increasing the value of the jet engine.

GE has been working on developing additive manufacturing capabilities for over a decade. [1] To do this, GE has used a mixture of small-scale implementation of parts made through additive manufacturing and strategic inorganic growth. GE has been evaluating areas to test additive manufacturing in jet engines by evaluating parts that could be used as pilot programs to use additive manufacturing. GE identified a fuel nozzle in its recently launched LEAP engine that would be an ideal candidate for additive manufacturing. This part would go on to be the first FAA approved part in a commercial engine created using additive manufacturing. This new, cheaper fuel nozzle combined 20 parts into 1, and reduced weight by 25%. Additionally, the part is five times more durable than a conventionally manufactured alternative. Now that GE has succeeded in getting FAA approval for a part made by additive manufacturing, it is incorporating it into its simpler product development, as seen in the ATP program. This program scaled the technology across an entire engine by redesigning 855 parts on a previous engine down to 12, enabled by additive manufacturing. This helps GE redefine its product development process to focus on improving an existing design, thus shortening the time it took to develop the engine by 33%.[2] However, this is a relatively inexpensive and small volume engine; the real test is to see if this pays off on larger commercial programs or those built from scratch.

To enable the development of this technology, GE has focused on improving its capabilities. In the last few years, GE has acquired various manufacturers such as Morris Technologies and Avio Aero to gain access to talent and technology. Additionally, GE has invested in Arcam and Concept Laser, manufacturers of 3D Printers.[3] GE then created a standalone group, GE Additive, to build an organization to coordinate technological development across businesses. It also serves as a supplier to companies looking to use additive manufacturing.[4] GE can use this to both develop its capabilities and serve as a revenue stream.

Going forward, GE must consider how to use this technology at scale throughout the value chain. In product development, GE must consider how to develop a clean-sheet engine that uses additive manufacturing to improve engine efficiency. GE should expand the “boot camps” at its Additive Training Center to train its design engineers to understand the full capabilities of additive manufacturing.[5] Furthermore, additive manufacturing allows GE to rapidly prototype, shortening the development cycle, and GE must make sure its supply chain is equipped to support this. There is additional opportunity in using additive manufacturing to enhance GE’s service and support. In 2017, over 60% of revenue of GE Aviation was from “Services.” Traditionally, GE generates revenue from spare parts sales well after launch.[6] GE should evaluate how additive manufacturing can be used for parts in existing programs to reduce cost and avoid cannibalizing this revenue in the future. This could include using additive manufacturing to repair engine-run parts, or manufacture legacy parts more cost effectively.[7]

As GE tries to use its GE Additive group to scale, a few questions that emerge. How does GE balance using additive manufacturing to improve its existing engines versus thinking about how additive manufacturing can enable clean-sheet design? How does GE address the risk of a change to their business based on a potential reduction in spares revenue through more durable parts such as the LEAP nozzle? Finally, given GE Additive is looking for customers that need additive manufacturing, how does it serve aerospace customers who may be suppliers to its current competitors?

 

 

[1] General Electric, “The Blade Runners: This Factory Is 3D Printing Turbine Parts For The World’s Largest Jet Engine,” https://www.ge.com/reports/future-manufacturing-take-look-inside-factory-3d-printing-jet-engine-parts/, accessed November 2018.

[2] General Electric, “An Epiphany Of Disruption: GE Additive Chief Explains How 3D Printing Will Upend Manufacturing,” https://www.ge.com/reports/epiphany-disruption-ge-additive-chief-explains-3d-printing-will-upend-manufacturing/, accessed November 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] GE Additive, “Who we are,” https://www.ge.com/additive/who-we-are, accessed November 2018.

[5] General Electric, “An Epiphany Of Disruption: GE Additive Chief Explains How 3D Printing Will Upend Manufacturing”

[6] General Electric, 2017 Annual Report, p. 52-55, https://www.ge.com/investor-relations/ar2017/downloads, accessed November 2018.

[7] General Electric, “Scan and fix: GE Aviation uses additive technology to fast track engine component repairs,” https://www.ge.com/additive/case-studies/scan-and-fix-ge-aviation-uses-additive-technology-fast-track-engine-component, accessed November 2018.

8 thoughts on “Soaring to new heights with additive manufacturing at GE Aviation

  1. Great article! Appreciate the clarity in how exactly additive manufacturing can help GE reduce cost and complexity while increasing durability for their jet engines. In the paragraph where you bring up fuel nozzles in LEAP engines, you reference the fact that this was the first FAA approved part. So for every part that GE develops to replace a conventionally manufactured alternative, does it need to get FAA approval? And if so, does GE take the cost or timing of that approval process in determining the scale of how they should incorporate additive manufacturing into their business?

    1. For FAA approval, as I understand it, GE typically submits an entire engine for approval upon initial design. The whole engine is then evaluated based on requirements that demonstrate a certain level of durability. Parts can be approved one off, after the fact, but must be tested in a lab to be approved. Therefore, GE batches its engine tests to achieve scale. It may then take the “version 2.0” and either retrofit existing engines or make that the new standard if there are still new engines to be manufactured. Therefore, for this to work, it needs to design its updated parts in concert with its existing improvement test plans.

  2. As a huge fan of 3D printing I’m upset I didn’t know about GE Additive! Really interesting article, I learned a lot.

    With GE selling off Transportation and focusing more on services, it will be interesting to watch and see how Additive grows. I also wonder what approvals and regulations are required for 3D printing parts for engines and other GE products. For the fuel nozzles specifically – how many do they produce on a yearly basis? What are the annual cost savings? For other GE businesses – where else can Additive add value?

    The changeover times and costs for 3D printing in a manufacturing setting can be quite large (i.e. changing material, design, time to print – multiple at once? One at a time?, size of printer, etc.). I imagine that it would make a lot of sense for Additive to produce large quantities of the same parts. Does it make sense to continue producing parts for GE engines or other GE business units? Or will GE use its machines to manufacture parts at scale for third party customers?

    Additionally, how will GE make sure to stay on top of the latest 3D printing technologies (i.e. printers being able to use more materials, get faster, etc.) in order to stay competitive?

    Can’t wait to follow GE Additive from here on out and see where they take the business! Thanks for sharing this article.

    1. I think AM represents different opportunities for different parts of the business. The LEAP engine has >12,000 orders, and is projected to be the best-selling engine ever. Therefore, this helps provide cost savings at scale. For other applications, including in R&D, many products will be very small batch to undergo testing/evaluation. I believe GE has value firstly for its own engines – the production for third-parties should only be used to increase machine utilization or increase knowledge.

  3. Fun read. From our Boeing case, we learned how difficult it is for airline manufacturers to handle variability in order size, upfront capital costs, and relative consumer power. The operational benefits to GE through additive manufacturing appear to address many of these needs. However, considering how many commercial planes from the late 80s and 90s are in use today, how does GE account for creating “too durable” of a product? Is there sufficient demand?

    1. As oil prices increase, airlines see huge value in improved engines. Therefore, if AM can reduce weight, it can increase efficiency and airlines will be in high demand for their engines and retrofits. In terms of the durability – GE must consider the “lifetime value” it traditionally gets from selling AND servicing an engine. If the servicing revenue is at risk, GE must increase the upfront cost of the engine. One way GE could convince consumers is by pricing in extended warranties, which will be more profitable to GE if the engine is more durable. However, this changes airlines’ purchasing models as well, and GE must work with its customers to understand the value.

  4. Nice article! While the potential for declining revenues due to a declining need for spares is a valid risk, I believe this presents an excellent opportunity for GE to get ahead of future demand by communicating how diverse its 3D printing capabilities are. I see this as an opportunity to develop additional revenue streams as it explores who it wants to be to players at different positions in the aerospace value chain.

  5. Great article. Additive manufacturing in aerospace is an incredibly interesting field because it allows designers to optimize design for weight and performance, but the amount of time required to produce parts goes up significantly. To answer your question regarding revenue loss due to the increase in durable components – I think that that revenue loss if offset by a decreased inventory carrying cost. Companies may not need to hold certain spare parts inventory at all if they are manufactured using 3D printing. The parts can be made Just In Time. There is also the elimination of set up costs times to produce certain parts if they were otherwise dormant. Thanks!

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