GE has been invested in additive manufacturing for years now, employing the technology throughout many of its operations, and in 2016 made the billion-dollar move to become a metal additive manufacturing machinery supplier through the acquisition of two metal 3D printing companies. 2017 saw the business — now under the GE Additive umbrella — advancing, with hints in the spring about the company’s intent to introduce a new metal 3D printing system. Project A.T.L.A.S. was formally announced in June and unveiled last month at formnext, offering scalable Concept Laser powder bed technology. In addition to the laser modality offered via Concept Laser and the EBM modality through Arcam, GE Additive was keen to become further involved in the disruption of traditional manufacturing, and the company is now introducing the prototype of a new binder jetting system.
GE Additive invited me to their Cincinnati, Ohio-based Additive Technology Center (ATC) for an exclusive first look at their newest technology. On October 6th of this year, Mohammad Ehteshami, Vice President and General Manager of GE Additive, posed a challenge to his team: develop a binder jetting machine. And do it by the end of November.
“The goal is to disrupt casting,” Ehteshami told me of the project’s inception. “We consume so much casting inside GE — billions and billions of dollars — and we can disrupt this, not only for ourselves, but for everyone else. We will use this and we will sell this. We were looking to modalities; we have Concept Laser for laser modality, we have Arcam for EBM modality, and today, we introduce the binder jet modality.”
If the team of engineers were challenged by the hustle put on this project with Ehteshami’s 55-day timeline, they didn’t let that discourage them; the prototype of the yet-to-be-officially-named machine (going by Project H1) was configured, designed, built, and making its first part 47 days after the initial call to action.
“Customers are demanding scalable machines, and these guys have designed a scalable machine. This one prints about 40 cubic inches in an hour. I can see it going up to 600 to 700 cubic inches in an hour,” Ehtashami said.
The first print off the machine was the number 47, in commemoration of the conception-to-print timeline. Since then, prints have continued as the system is put through its paces; during my visit I also had the opportunity to see a green aerospace part that had recently come off it, as well as a look inside at an in-process job.
Following the tour de machine, I sat down again with the team to learn more about the project, from start to finish.
“It’s been an incredible experience working with our cross-functional team, with all of our networks across the business,” Breakout Technology Leader Travis Sands told me of the process. “That’s one of the advantages of working with GE; there’s so much within these walls. This project shows that. It was a tough ask — and the team delivered ahead of time, and under budget.”
Internal collaboration and immediate access to resources mark major advantages of working within a global enterprise, but the extent to which these resources came together makes this project a standout even for GE.
“This was unique,” Vadim Bromberg, Lead Mechanical Engineer, GE Global Research Center (GRC), continued. “There aren’t frequent instances of all the teams coming together with this incredible level of support from top to bottom. It’s been very exciting to be a part of.”
The support and teamwork were critical to the success of the project — and so were the man-hours put in.
“We were here more than we weren’t. We slept on couches; there was round-the-clock work. We were really committed to build this together,” Sands explained. “And while everyone at GE is one big family, we definitely couldn’t have done this without the support of our families.”
Ehteshami noted that at 2pm the day before Thanksgiving, he had to kick the dedicated team out and tell them to go home and enjoy the holiday with their families.
GE Additive Lead Designer Victor Fulton concurred, noting, “We’re all super passionate about what we’ve done and have been doing.”
“There are only so many resources available, and the team was very resourceful to enhance what we have, as we start down the path of what we want to turn into a product line,” Sands told me. “This is what our industries want to produce right now. Our creative designer was fantastic to design this, and it all came together under time and under budget. We are challenging industry in a way it’s never been challenged before.”
He continued, “AddWorks’ internal team has some of the best design engineers in the world, they are changing the way we design for manufacturing. We will use this tool to further disrupt manufacturing.”
Tight timelines are themselves not new to the work being done at GE Additive; Project A.T.L.A.S. had an ambitious nine-month timeline ahead of its formnext debut.
“I’m absolutely grateful to this team and what they’ve done. The same thing happened with A.T.L.A.S.,” Ehteshami said. “People doubted we could do that before formnext, but we did.”
He next put a greater context around the speed with which GE Additive has been working and scaling up, noting that last year, they made 183 machines. In 2017, they made 527 machines and sold 420 of them, with the remainder destined for internal use. With $200 million in R&D this year, there’s no sign of slowing down, and the team is scaling operations accordingly. When GE acquired the two additive manufacturing companies last year, they had about 550 employees; GE Additive’s employee count is closer to 1200 now.
So why binder jetting? And why so soon? The answers, for Ehteshami, boil down to one major advantage of this technology: speed with the power to disrupt.
“We believe this binder jet modality is very suitable for the automotive industry. Automotive is all about speed, and cost. Especially with steel and aluminum, additive manufacturing can compete with casting, where you don’t need months and years to develop tooling,” he told me.
“We have a few key messages with this project: The new binder jetting solution will disrupt existing technologies in aerospace, in automotive, in power, in healthcare. It will replace casting. This new machine is faster than any other on the market now.”
Manufacturers are always looking to enhance the speed to market, which involves expediting all stages of production and all tooling used along the way. The fast-moving automotive and aerospace verticals are prime examples of this need for speed, as well as reliable technologies that can survive the demands placed on them in a manufacturing environment. These two industries are truly driving the acceleration of development, Ehteshami underscored, a call that is widening.
“We continue introducing new machines, new materials, new software, and irrespective of industry, customers ask for bigger, faster machines,” he noted of the broader user demand.
The new binder jetting system will be put to extensive use internally as well as through external sales. Continuing with the fast pace of development for the project, Ehteshami anticipates the production version being ready by mid-2018, with internal customers expecting the first delivery in June.
“The advantages this modality has are many — it is faster and cheaper than laser, than EBM. It does not, though, have the fineness of feature of laser or EBM,” he added.
While GE Additive is not sharing many system specs at this time, Ehteshami noted that the prototype that I saw has a build volume of 300 x 300 x 350 mm — but, he added, the sister they are working on now will have a two-to-three times larger build plate. The aerospace faring I saw was created in what Sands described as half the time it would have taken on the competitions’ systems. They declined to name any direct competitors in binder jetting, noting that there are around four very well-known companies operating in this space — and that their new system is faster than any of these. One key to the GE Additive process is the binder it uses.
“We have a proprietary binder that we believe is superior to everyone else’s. And we have the IP necessary to secure this segment of the machine,” Ehteshami said.
Once off the machine, a green part will need to be subjected to a thermal process for finishing, as with any binder jetting system. Sands noted that the team is hard at work to optimize this process, enhancing strength in thermal processing, distortion optimization, and looking to integrate their technologies.
To that end, Ehteshami pointed to GE Additive as a proof of concept in a full solution offering as a major benefit to participation in the additive manufacturing industry.
“We are the only company owning materials, machines, software — we consume it, we know what to improve. None of the additive companies have that holistic view that we do,” he said.
The binder jetting systems will be produced in the US, most likely in the Cincinnati area. The West Chester ATC, which opened in 2015, now houses about 350-400 employees and more than 100 machines working with stainless steel, cobalt bases, nickel bases, aluminum, Inconel, titanium, and other metals that Ehteshami described as “the whole spectrum to enable GE and the industry.”
Adding binder jetting to the GE Additive portfolio marks a big step forward for the company as it embarks down a new technology path that will expand to a product line offering, one based on not acquired technologies but internal development. From the sounds of it, too, we shouldn’t be surprised to hear about additional developments down the line as the company continues to explore additive manufacturing technologies.
“We will continue to look organically and inorganically to see what makes sense for us,” Ehteshami told me.
These hints of more to come are in line with statements from David Joyce, Vice Chair of GE and President and CEO of GE Aviation, upon the initial announcement of GE’s acquisition ambitions. Last September he said, “Over time, we plan to extend the line of additive manufacturing equipment and products.”
During my visit to the ATC, we spoke more about the company’s global operations, diversity strategies, leadership changes, longer-term visions, and Ehteshami’s take on the growth of additive manufacturing as well; read more in-depth details from inside the ATC here.
Discuss binder jetting and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts in the comments below.[Photos: Sarah Goehrke]