Just a few weeks ago, GE Additive made history with the maiden voyage of the Boeing 777x, with over 300 3D printed parts inside each of its two GE9x engines. About 80% of those parts are titanium alumide blades 3D printed on Arcam EBM systems. During our recent tour of the new GE Additive Arcam EBM Center of Excellence, we had the opportunity to sit down with Jason Oliver, Vice President & CEO of GE Additive since January 2018.
That was about the time when the Arcam business started to kick in for GE and now the strategy is starting to bear fruits. Arcam EBM systems are reportedly selling like 1200°C hotcakes, as firms in both the medical and aerospace segment begin to adopt these machines for serial production.
“Customers are really getting it,” Mr. Oliver says. He seems quite enthusiastic by the work done at Arcam, which justifies the €18 million investment that GE made on this state of the art facility. “The work that has been done here at Arcam over the past four years is really starting to pay off. We’ve crawled, then walked and now we run with a series of customers as they are now embracing this technology and moving into higher volume parts.”
As I pointed out to Mr. Oliver, in the first two years after the acquisition, there did not seem to be much news on the Arcam front, with Concept Laser seeming to take up most of the newly formed company’s focus. One of the reasons for that – as I learned – is that Arcam was not actually fully owned by GE until the end of 2017. Elliot, the giant investment fund that owns part of SLM Solutions (and had a key role in blocking the sale to GE), was invested in Arcam as well. “When I came in, in January 2018, David Joyce, [CEO of GE Aviation], told me that they had just bought out Elliot,” Mr. Oliver told me. “I did not immediately realize the implications but that was the moment when we could start to fully focus on this business. We took it off the stock market in 2019 and now we are seeing the results.”
Buying Arcam and Concept Laser enabled GE to build an entirely new division from the ground up, however, there were many challenges still to overcome in order to integrate both companies and enable them to express their full potential. “It has always been about taking these two great entrepreneurial companies, with great technologies, leadership and people, just a step up in terms of their ability to respond to customers,” Mr. Oliver explained. “We worked with them to increase focus on quality and repeatability, as well as responsiveness on the service side. Now we have a lean running operation, from powders to hardware to part production, which allows us to reduce waste in our own processes and to apply that knowledge to our customer base.”
The GE9x project, which began as a concept more than a decade ago, has been successful and new engines promise a much broader use of AM. LEAP was the first to integrate a 3D printed part (the nozzle). GE sold $55 billion worth of those at the last Paris Air Show. The GE9x integrates many more 3D printed parts and the real additive revolution comes with new projects such as the Catalyst engine demonstrator, where hundreds of parts were reduced into just a handful of 3D printed components. These and all future engines have been designed for additive manufacturing from the bottom up and will see growing adoption in both commercial aviation and defense, which will further escalate the demand of Arcam systems.
“AM represents the digitization of manufacturing and is inevitable,” Mr. Oliver said. There is however a debate in place over how these AM factories will operate and whether they will be characterized by several distributed companies with a few machines or large factories with several dozen systems in operation. Mr. Oliver believes that “having a couple of machines for very specialized applications is a valid business model however the winners will eventually be those companies that are able to produce entire systems with additive. This means having access to hundreds if not thousands of machines providing these solutions.”
In order to address this demand, GE is now doubling up on its additive bet. Internally developed metal binder jetting is coming fast – targeting mainly automotive industry adopters – while new hardware manufacturing facilities at Concept Laser (in Germany) and here at Arcam are more and more integrated into a single entity, working along with the part production facilities in Munich and Cincinnati (which will also be further expanded).
“Today GE Additive represents the clearest example of GE’s forward-looking strategy on technology. For Larry Culp [CEO of General Electric], David Joyce and myself, additive represents a key aspect of GE’s future strategy and we know that giant companies like Boeing, and others in both industrial and medical manufacturing, are willing to bet their entire future on our technologies. We made a conscious decision that we are going to be playing and leading in this space and ultimately our goal is to make this a tier-one business for GE. It’s only a matter of time.”