How GE is using 3D printing to unleash the biggest revolution in large-scale manufacturing in over a century

In 2015, GE inaugurated a new, Multi-Modal manufacturing facility in Chakan, India. If the company's ambitions for the space are realized, it could drive a massive change in global manufacturing.

It is hard to imagine, with its iconography of billowing smoke and raging furnaces, that a factory would ever be called "brilliant" or "flexible." But, global behemoth General Electric wants to change the way you think about those far away, smoke-belching buildings and introduce you to a new era—maybe even a revolution—in manufacturing.

In 2015, GE unveiled its first ever US $200 million "Multi-Modal" facility in Chakan, located in the Indian state of Maharashtra, which it thinks will be the agent of this change. It was inaugurated by Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister who is confronted by the huge challenge of delivering jobs to hundreds of millions of youth who lack measurable skills. The factory won't be solving that gargantuan problem since it staffs a mere 1,500 technicians and engineers, but it's not meant to, at least not in a direct way. Instead, the factory promises to create an enormous, positive ripple effect both inside and outside India that will impact employment and supply chains, as well as promote radical new designs and industrial innovation like never before.

The factory in Chakan reveals the plan at work. Steam turbines compete for space with water treatment units and jet engine parts in neat rows on a spotless, ultra-modern factory floor.

"The idea is to service a multitude of businesses—from oil and gas, to aviation, transportation, and distributed power—all under the same roof," said GE's Amit Kumar, who oversees the Multi-Modal facility.

This could be transformational for GE for several reasons. For starters, the company will save an enormous amount of money—up to ten times as much, say company officials—by not having to construct dedicated factories servicing each business line. Since technicians will be churning out an array of diverse products for different businesses, they will quickly acquire skills across industries and operations, enhancing the value of the jobs and their individual skill sets.

SEE: Immelt: GE will use 100-year legacy to bridge physical and digital, create $15 billion software company

There's one other pivotal contribution from this Multi-Modal facility—economies of scale. Kumar said that GE contracts a large number of small suppliers who will struggle to meet the demands of such a large factory. Instead, the factory itself will assist in meeting burgeoning demand for certain products until local suppliers scale up their operations over time. Still, none of this fully explains why the Chakan factory is so unique, armed with a flexible spine that bends and contorts to the whims of GE's supply chain needs. If Chakan is the spear that is trying to hurtle GE towards a new manufacturing dawn, the tip of the spear that makes it all happen is its prized tool— 3D printing.

"3D printing isn't anything new at GE," says Prabhjot Singh, Manager of GE's Additive Manufacturing Lab in Schenectady, New York. "It's been around for decades and has been typically used to repair worn-out or broken down, high-value industrial parts such as compressor blades or gears using laser cladding technology."

"The idea is to service a multitude of businesses-from oil and gas, to aviation, transportation, and distributed power-all under the same roof."
Amit Kumar

This allows you to print on existing materials or parts with the same, or even a different material. But, in the last two years, GE has taken the technology from a repair aid to one that has already pushed the frontiers of engineering design. The undisputed poster child of its efforts in this department is the fuel nozzle.

The fuel nozzle may not have an impressive sounding name, but it plays a critical role in the inferno of an aircraft's engine in which it nestles while spraying jet fuel into it. So, it goes without saying that the nozzle has to be durable under both high pressure and intense heat (around 3,000 Fahrenheit).

"Before GE targeted it for a reconfiguration, the nozzle was made up of 20 disparate parts procured from independent suppliers that were then painstakingly brazed and welded together. 3D printing completely transformed that process," said Greg Morris, GE Aviation's general manager for additive technologies.

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Prior to working for GE, Morris ran his own outfit, Morris Technologies, a Cincinnati-based rapid prototyping company that had closely worked with GE for over a decade. Morris' firm had been busy experimenting with metal sintering as well as super alloys made up of amalgams of cobalt and chrome for several years. In 2011, the firm zeroed in on the fuel nozzle as the part most appropriate for a makeover. When GE acquired the company in 2012, the momentum to bring the fuel nozzle to life via 3D printing arrived.

The end result is an engineering marvel, one monolithic piece that has replicated the complex interior passageways and chambers of the old nozzle down to every twist and turn thanks to the miracle of direct metal laser melting where fine alloy powder is sprayed onto a platform in a printer and then heated by a laser, and repeated 3,000 times until the part is formed. What makes the new nozzle so special isn't just that it has converted a many-steps engineering and manufacturing process into just one. It is also a miracle of material science since it happens to be both 25% lighter in weight, as well as a staggering five times more durable than its older sibling, all of which translates to a savings of around US $3 million per aircraft, per year for any airline flying a plane equipped with GE's next generation LEAP engine, developed by CFM International, a joint venture between GE and France's Snecma (Safran).

"We simply could not do this level of production for such a complex part without [the] 3D additive process," Morris said.

Morris said that so far there have been orders for over 8,000 of these engines totaling $80 billion, each equipped with 19 3D printed fuel nozzles, scheduled to go into the Airbus A320neo, the Boeing 737 MAX, and the Boeing 777X. Here lies Morris' and GE's challenge: Try and print 100,000 fuel nozzles by 2020 and eventually ramp up capacity to 44,000 of them a year—a goal that looks unreachable based on current levels of 3D printing technology. This means that places like the Chakan plant will be pressed into service to handle global production shortfalls by simply printing out nozzles from India thanks to a CAD design of the part housed on their server.

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Before 3D printing, this fuel nozzle had 20 different pieces. Now, just one part, the nozzle is 25% lighter and five times more durable.
Image: GE

For now, though, manufacturing centres such as Chakan service a crucial, existing need within GE. When one-of-a-kind, complex machinery breaks down, replacement parts are often hard to find, causing delays and losses to GE's businesses. They often have to be designed and made from scratch. But, regenerating high-end parts requires "jigs" and other customised tools that make it easier to hold and position parts.

"These normally take three to five months to produce. Now, it can take about a week," said Singh.

Feeding global supply chains with parts for generators, engines, and turbines is a lifesaving exercise. That's where GE shines, providing the opportunity to conduct prototyping at blazing speeds. Now, designers looking to conjure up new parts can modify their designs at will, print out the part and instantly test it, thereby dramatically shrinking the design-to-manufacturing loop and accelerating the innovation process. Simply put, it could herald the era of continuous, rapid innovation in manufacturing that the world hasn't yet seen.

SEE: GE launches 'microfactory' to co-create the future of manufacturing

In fact, it is here that the Multi-Modal facility holds tantalizing prospects for cross-pollination in design, materials, testing and manufacturing. Before the Chakan facility was born, GE had already established a large research and development center in Bangalore—its first outside of the US—with a staff of 4,500 people. This facility will play an important role in feeding Chakan with new products to churn out.

"We work with GE colleagues all over the world," said Vinod Kumar, who leads materials and inspection for GE Global Research in Bangalore. "We are part of any global team's technology project, located in various parts of the world, from day one."

"These normally take three to five months to produce. Now, it can take about a week."
Prabhjot Singh

Apart from plugging into a global supply chain of innovation and production, a Bangalore-Chakan GE synergy could result in another pivotal spillover effect: Driving localized innovation for markets closer to home in ways that haven't happened before.

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GE's plan is to extend the benefits of creating this interlocking global alliance in design and manufacturing innovation one step further. It wants its machines to think for themselves, a scary notion if you take Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey seriously, but a boon for someone like Amit Kumar, Chakan's Plant Manager. Sharing information in real time will allow the factory's computers and machines to adapt to changes in the production schedule, deal with downtime, avoid shutdowns, and manage inventory. It wants to make the factory "brilliant."

Examples of the power of this new GE model are already taking place across the globe. GE's Oil and Gas unit in Japan, for instance, designed and printed a key control valve part for its Kariwa plant in Niigata Prefecture in just two weeks, when it would have previously taken three months. Engineers at GE Power and Water have designed and printed their own cooling shroud that is vastly more efficient than its predecessor.

If GE's plan works on a large scale, catalyzing hundreds and thousands of min-revolutions all over the world, it may have stumbled upon something that has not been witnessed in manufacturing since the Spinning Jenny.

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About

Rajiv is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi. He covers how new technologies, innovation, and disruptive business forces are shaking things up in India.