AM is literally taking off at GE
An exclusive interview with Christine Furstoss and Eric Gatlin, the people calling the shots at GE Additive and GE Aviation
One of the biggest players in industrial additive manufacturing, GE Additive was certainly a big draw for Formnext 2018 attendees. Though the company did not unveil a brand new technology as others did, it did show off the new M LINE Factory systems and made headlines for a range of announcements, including a partnership with Autodesk and innovative applications for its AM technology.
We had the chance to catch up with two of the company’s AM leaders: Christine Furstoss, Chief Technology Officer of GE Additive and Eric Gatlin, Additive Manufacturing Leader of GE Aviation. In their respective divisions, Furstoss and Gatlin are playing a critical role in the proliferation and advancement of industrial 3D printing.
“Every day, we learn a little bit more,” said Furstoss about running one of the most cutting-edge AM businesses around. “As you run more machines for longer amounts of time, things change. How do you have to calibrate them? When should you do preventative maintenance? All of these questions are part of the learning curve. As CTO, I also look at what will be needed to get a better quality of parts, to make more kinds of features, to handle more materials. So my role is to enhance the customer experience with technology today and look at how we continue to drive adoption in industry tomorrow.”
AM takes to the skies
Focusing on the present, Gatlin spoke about additive manufacturing within GE’s aviation unit and what its current applications are.
“We have three part numbers that are in production today,” he explained. “The most famous is our fuel nozzle tip. We also have an aero oil separator for our Passport 20 engine (it’s flying) and a T25 sensor that was a small production that we also started flying. There’s a fourth one that we’re launching right now which is our new powder door operating system bracket. That’s starting production on our M2 systems as we speak.”
Looking at how many 3D printed parts are currently flying on aircraft, Gatlin reveals the number to be around 40,000 parts. “It speaks to the exponential growth we’ve seen in this space over the course of the last three years,” he said. “Getting to 40,000 and in one calendar year getting to another 40,000.”
Binder jetting on the horizon
Though GE Additive’s metal AM business is currently centered on EBM and SLM processes, Furstoss adds that the company is exploring binder jet printing.
“We’ve announced that binder jet is our next modality,” she said. “There are advantages to every type of process. Binder jet gives great properties but it’s very different than laser or electron beam systems for balance of properties. Today, we’re making initial units of our binder jet technology for some customers to try.
“An important part of how we want to go forward in launching new products is to make small quantities that GE itself will run and then select customers to give feedback. We’re in that stage now and should be able to launch later in 2019. We continue to look at other modalities too but our focus for 2019 will be on the two electron beam modalities and industrialization.”
Working together to advance the additive journey
Though two distinct divisions, GE Additive and GE Aviation often work together, the latter helping the former to understand applications for AM systems. As we’ve seen from the outside, the importance of additive manufacturing within GE Aviation is continually growing.
“In the aviation space, it’s a lot of exploring,” Gatlin elaborated. “Every new engine we design starts from the position of ‘what can we do additively?’ I think our Catalyst Engine is a great example of that: right on the heels of the success of the fuel tip, we went right into designing an engine using AM. That’s a pretty big leap of faith that we made as a business.
“We also designed the GE9X Engine that has six additive parts in it. Beyond that, we’ve got tremendous growth in the military space in our new engine developments there. We just announced the supersonic engine and 30% of it will be done additively. Our new bracket that we’re launching is 35% lighter than the existing bracket. And it’s on an engine that’s been flying for over a decade. We have well over 100 parts that are in active development right now.”
“I think that’s a good example of the additive journey for companies,” Furstoss added. “It started with a part and then it went to systems and looking at the system as a whole. Other parts of GE businesses are one different parts of that journey. For example, our healthcare business is starting to print its first parts for CT machines.”
Transforming GE’s business and beyond
“Our current divisions for additive are GE Aviation—the largest provider of revenue,” Furstoss said. “Along with GE Power and GE Renewable. We have also announced work with GE Transportation and GE Healthcare, but the core for GE are those three industrial businesses and additive is really powering some of their innovations.”
Gatlin emphasized the importance of AM for aviation, saying: “Additive absolutely will transform aviation. We’re always going to have a need for traditional castings and forgings, but additive will be right up there. Additive is going to continue to grow and continue to displace traditional parts that we see today.”
“You’ve got to take that leap of faith,” he continued, addressing how AM adoption will be pushed ahead in other businesses. “Companies like GE Additive being able to come in and provide guidance and support, I think that’s really what will help companies over that mental hurdle. They see the tremendous investment in retraining people and thinking differently. I think that’s what GE Additive brings to the table: it helps you get through that mental barrier of how do I adapt faster?”