Seizing competitive advantage with 3-D printing

August 19, 2016

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Christine M. Furstoss is the global technology director of manufacturing and materials technologies at GE’s global research center.

Christine M. Furstoss is the global technology director of manufacturing and materials technologies at GE’s global research center.

Christine Furstoss of GE shares the breadth and depth of how 3-D printing is transforming manufacturing at GE.

 

PwC: Christine, can you please briefly describe your role at GE and your current priorities?

Christine Furstoss: Sure. I lead the manufacturing and materials technology organization at GE’s global research center. My role is to work with the supply chain and engineering leaders across all GE business units to assess, set strategy for growth, and implement critical process and material developments for industry-leading products and manufacturing.

Major initiatives that we’re working on this year and will continue for the foreseeable future are to invest in new materials and to get higher-efficiency products, better performance, and longer life. That’s the core of what we do.

I’m very proud that our chairman always says we are a materials company even though we don’t sell materials. That’s a big part of what differentiates us. Also, we can never talk materials without discussing the manufacturing process. The two go together. So we continue to invest in novel manufacturing technologies and are moving toward what we call advanced manufacturing.


PwC: What is advanced manufacturing and how does 3-D printing fit in that vision?

Christine Furstoss: Advanced manufacturing is not any one technology or a different type of factory system. It’s the dedication to advance your products, your position in the market, and your competitiveness through new manufacturing technologies. This is where 3-D printing fits in, along with new types of machining— whether that’s a new type of material processing, forming, drilling, and others.

It is a comprehensive vision to understand how manufacturing is being transformed and disrupted across the value chain from design to service. There are four pieces in advanced manufacturing, and 3-D printing fits in many pieces.

The first piece is concept and design, and the prospect that a lot of it can now be accomplished through crowdsourcing. Recently we successfully organized an open competition to design jet engine brackets that radically reduce the bracket eight by taking advantage of 3-D printing. The winning design was 84 percent lighter than the existing bracket. What the project told us is that you can conceive and create things, and you can find people anywhere in the world who can solve your problem. It is concept and design piece getting disrupted.

The next piece is the disruption of machining, tooling, and fabrication. This piece is where 3-D printing has the most application, along with subtractive manufacturing and others, by enabling rapid prototyping, rapid tooling, and so forth.

The third piece is encapsulated in our idea of brilliant factories, which is digitizing and revolutionizing manufacturing. You can run factories smarter, just in time. You can run them in a distributed fashion, have more of them, or place them closer to raw materials or consumption. So factories are disrupted.

The last piece is the disruption of the supply chain. Future supply chains will combine digital and physical distribution in interesting ways to change the economics and efficiencies of the supply chain. Designers will rethink their products to take advantage of these new characteristics.

If you have that feedback based on built data, usage data, and service data, you really have closed-loop feedback across the value chain, and that is where GE is very different from others.

“It [advanced manufacturing] is a comprehensive vision to understand how manufacturing is being transformed and disrupted across the value chain from design to service.”


PwC: Where is 3-D printing being used at GE?

Christine Furstoss: For us, 3-D printing is not just for the engineering validation prototype. That’s one of our uses, but it is also a manufacturing technology to create finished products.

Today, as we work with 3-D printing, we are learning about a lot of things, such as making a part in days instead of years, or being able to test in a turbine or a locomotive or in a new lighting fixture. We’re also learning about making designs out of the right material. Maybe the design isn’t perfect, because it is early in the engineering phase and we didn’t optimize the process for the material, but we can actually test it and it will last long enough for the test. For example, we can find out whether we can burn fuel 200 degrees hotter, so a product is more efficient and produces fewer emissions.

For us, 3-D printing opens new ways of thinking, not only about our products but also about the whole design process. In addition, 3-D printing is one of the first areas where digital truly meets physical—or you can also say where analytics meets software. It is the integration of software from the process into the design, from the design into the machine, and during the printing of the actual part.

“For us, 3-D printing is not just for the engineering validation prototype. That’s one of our uses, but it is also a manufacturing technology to create finished products.”


PwC: What are some challenges you’ve needed to address as you engage with 3-D printing?

Christine Furstoss: We had to overcome many challenges. Everyone needs to change their skill sets, and that is one challenge. The materials engineers and manufacturing engineers need to know software. That’s why we’re excited about some of the new opportunities, including the newly announced digital manufacturing institute for which GE is one of the industrial partners.

Another challenge that stops many companies from embracing 3-D printing is software-inclusive control. In other words, the whole loop hasn’t been closed, as we envision in our brilliant factory concept. A closed loop is essential to make 3-D printing an industrial element, so it is not limited to making two or three parts or just the prototype parts but can be used for making the full part or a large portion of the parts at scale.


PwC: Is 3-D printing making it easier to create and work with new materials?

Christine Furstoss: With regard to materials, 3-D printing offers both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity is to create and use new types of materials. The challenge is to introduce new materials into new products, because there are no standards to certify material properties. When I get a forged bar billet, a casting, I know the properties. I can take a little piece off of it and know how strong it is before I ever put a cutting tool to it. The supplier who sent it to me certified it, so I know exactly what I’m getting and I know what to do with it.

With additive manufacturing, if you don’t understand which parameters—laser strength, speed of deposition, powder quality—control the material properties, you need to test every piece and may need to scrap an item after you’ve spent, for example, 72 hours building it. That’s not where we want to be.

Today there are fewer examples where we’re building both geometry and properties at the same time. I don’t think people fully grasp what that really means. By building geometry and properties you have such great potential, but you also have such great responsibility to understand where every single particle is going. I have a responsibility to produce reliable products that meet performance characteristics. How do I ensure that? How do I inspect intricate parts?

“The flexibility 3-D printing gives us in understanding activity on the factory floor during the design, customization, repair of parts—that’s the power of additive manufacturing.”


PwC: How should enterprises analyze 3-D printing efforts? Should they compare them with conventional methods of manufacturing?

Christine Furstoss: It really depends on what you are doing. In some cases, comparing manufacturing costs alone might be misleading. For example, although 3-D printing could be slower and more expensive than conventional methods in some cases, it could enable you to change the terms of competition and get into a new market.

Let’s say that a fuel nozzle we are developing will be five times more expensive to make using 3-D printing than it would using the current process, where we make the various components and bolt them together.

However, as a result of the fuel nozzle being lighter, stronger, and more efficient, you can sell jet engines that have X percent more throughput. That’s not a very complicated equation, but on the surface, a typical engineer might ask, “Why would you do that? The cost using conventional methods is $2,000. The 3-D printed part costs $10,000 and takes twice as long to produce.” But then someone points out that the fuel nozzle is 4 percent lighter, which means it will deliver $100,000 greater productivity over its lifetime. Now that changes the whole equation.

How you get people smart enough to run that equation all the way through is part of what must get figured out in this new world of advanced manufacturing. That’s the nature of disruption that we are trying to understand and take advantage of.


PwC: What are the implications of 3-D printing on other parts of the business?

Christine Furstoss: Additive manufacturing gives us some flexibility to explore new designs and new material systems faster than ever before. I don’t need to wait—I can print it. But you must couple 3-D printing with better analytics. We’re just learning how to control the machines better, so we can also have more flexibility on the process side.

I think 3-D printing has a dramatic implication for research. Not only can 3-D printing be a production tool, or a surrogate for understanding how valuable data is, but it also can be a research tool because you can manipulate quickly and combine different materials without disrupting an existing setup. Today, if I want to melt a different type of steel, I must change all the tooling, otherwise the experiment will contaminate everything. This possibility of using additive technologies as a material discovery and research tool is just emerging.

The capabilities of 3-D printing also represent a new bar that is being set for other manufacturing methods. All the things we talked about—closed feedback loops, better integration, faster turnaround— 3-D printing shows they are possible. Now we want to have these capabilities with every machine and every drill bit and every new material. All of these are a learning opportunity as well as a growth opportunity.


PwC: What is the longer-term outlook of 3-D printing at GE?

Christine Furstoss: The outlook is evolving as we learn and understand more. We already are sparking a lot of our growth using 3-D printing in areas that require customization. The oil and gas industry is a big growth business for GE, and we’re very proud to be partnering with our customers there. Because every wellhead is different, both in geography as well as gases or oils, that industry requires a certain amount of customization for every project. Power generation products also have been that way. Although we have core units, every customer’s configuration is unique. With 3-D printing, we have the flexibility to extend our products quickly to fit each customer’s needs.

We expect to use 3-D printing across our value chain of design to service. How far can 3-D printing bring us in tooling? How far can 3-D printing take us in adding features to existing parts? We’re stretching and flexing those muscles right now to understand. I often say that additive technologies will touch more than 50 percent of parts we make in the future. I do not mean we will print more than 50 percent, but maybe we make the tooling, maybe we do the repair, maybe it allows us to test this unique configuration and to offer more unique configurations than ever before.

The flexibility 3-D printing gives us in understanding activity on the factory floor during the design, customization, repair of parts—that’s the power of additive manufacturing.

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