GE’s Additive Technology Center – or ATC – is located along Interstate 75, near Cincinnati, in Ohio. From the outside, the building looks like many of the low, gray boxes in this industrial area. But step inside it houses the world’s largest and most advanced 3D printing facility and development center.
“It’s not hard to walk into this building every morning and go to work,” says Eric Gatlin, a general manager for GE Aviation focusing on additive manufacturing. “A lot of the things we do here, we are doing for the very first time. I think that breeds a certain amount of excitement, a certain amount of energy, and requires a certain culture.”
The ATC holds close to 90 3D printers, including six of the largest metal printers in the world, the XLine 2000, and employs 300 designers, machinists and engineers. The site belongs to GE Aviation, but about half of the employees come from GE Additive, the new GE business unit that makes 3D printers and the materials used for printing.
A house for GE Additive
As recently as 2015, the ATC, as GE calls it, was an empty shell that once held a Dell Computers distribution center. At that time, GE had already acquired Morris Technologies, an American additive manufacturing pioneer based in Cincinnati, and used 3D printing to develop an intricate tip for a fuel nozzle in a new jet engine called the LEAP. In 2016, the company followed that acquisition by taking majority stakes in Concept Laser, a German maker of 3D printers, and Arcam AB, which makes printers as well as the special metal powders used for printing. These companies now form the core of GE Additive.
The printers here produce intricate fuel nozzles for the GE9X, the world’s largest jet engine; ribbed gearbox covers for the GE Catalyst, the company’s new turboprop engine; alien-looking fuel heaters honeycombed with vessel-like channels; and many other items. The parts are built, step by tiny step, by fusing together super-thin layers of fine metal powder with lasers or electron beams. With the GE Catalyst, the technology allowed the company to combine 855 parts into just 12, reduce weight, simplify the supply chain and maintenance, and improve the engine’s performance.
The factory of the present
From the start, GE aimed to use the space as a melting pot the size of three football fields where manufacturing and supply chain engineers could easily talk to the technicians printing their designs as well as the people responsible for building the printers themselves and those developing the printing powder. “When you bring material science to the machine science and the product knowledge, you’ve got something that nobody else in the industry has,” Gatlin says.
GE laid out the ATC in a way that would make these interactions as natural and easy as possible. For example, the facility’s center is a large octagonal office area for workers, who zip in and out to the machines and workstations surrounding it like bees in a beehive. In a new and highly horizontal industry such as 3D printing there are people who come from a variety of backgrounds. They have re-sculpt their thinking and learn new engineering practices in a factory floor that can work as a learning environment as well.
“They need to be working together along the way because you are not just making a part, you are creating a process. You’re defining how you are going to make that part repeatedly.”
Steve Grimm, plant manager.
The power of additive
One recent example is a 3D printed bracket for the GEnx jet engine, which powers many Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft. The project involved using additive manufacturing to redesign an existing part, rather than developing a new component from scratch. While 3D printing presents the maximum benefits in subassemblies when you can combine parts into a system, the size and speed of the technologies present in the ATC can be used even for simpler parts.
Each GEnx engine has two of these brackets, which hold the engine covers open during maintenance. The traditional method of making them requires suppliers to mill away material from a solid block of aluminum. 3D printing them proved to be more efficient and cost-effective.
The production process is now going to be implemented at the Auburn 3D printing plant, applying those savings to the 2,200 GEnx engines on order. The process, which allowed them to radically reduce waste, also led to a lighter bracket, an important factor for the aviation industry.
Bigger projects ahead
The ATC also holds a research and development space where engineers test new features and applications for Concept Laser and Arcam printers. For example, the ATC houses the largest cluster of Concept Laser’s X-Line units anywhere in the world. These machines are the world’s largest industrial printers for metals, but GE Additive is already working to surpass them with Project A.T.L.A.S., a printer that will be able to make parts as large as 1 meter in all three axes. Engineers here are also helping AP&C, an Arcam subsidiary and one of the world’s largest suppliers of powder for metal printers, develop new materials.
The future looks busy. They ATC team has already identified more than 100 components that could be printed; one third are new products, but the rest involve redesigning existing parts like the bracket.
“In some ways, additive is just like any other manufacturing technology It’s not magic. It enables you to do more complex things, but there is a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes. That is what the team here is doing every day.”