‘3D printing will transform industries’

Venkatesh Ganesh Bangalore | Updated on April 04, 2014 Published on April 04, 2014

Mark Little

General Electric (GE) is preparing for the next industrial revolution. The company, which had a turnover of $146 billion in 2013, is in the process of redefining the rules of manufacturing through additive manufacturing (popularly known as 3D printing). In 3D printing, complex shapes are built up in layers from their constituent particles of plastics or metal, allowing for the creation of parts and products on a “one-off” basis much more cheaply than traditional production methods.

In an interview with Business Line, Mark Little, Senior V-P, Director of GE Global Research and Chief Technology Officer, talks about the way manufacturing is changing.

GE has been talking about the next industrial revolution. What will this be all about?

Globally, a shift is happening in the manufacturing industry— from the old prototyping methods to high-value manufacturing. In verticals, especially in the aerospace and medical implants industries, additive manufacturing technology is increasingly used to fabricate high-performance products. This process needs to be combined with a supply chain comprising a diverse group of technologists such as 3D printing machine manufacturers, metallurgists, engineers, non-destructive testing experts and specialised software developers.

Today, Boeing uses the process to make plastic air-conditioning ducts for its 787 Dreamliner jet. In the future, most manufacturers of airline parts or high-end medical equipment will be more like consultants who will oversee end-to-end of manufacturing process. This coming together of a global supply chain and testing standards is the way forward.

What steps GE is taking in this kind of manufacturing?

In four years, our new aircraft engine, the CFM Leap, will fly with parts made from 3-D printing. Four decades from now, we could be printing an entire engine this way. Additive manufacturing itself is not new. This method, which involves building up an object layer-by-layer, is used in small, niche products like medical implants today. In the industrial sector, it’s often used to rapidly produce plastic prototype parts to accelerate the development of new product designs. But to actually produce real, high performance, superalloy parts that will fly on commercial aircraft and someday produce an entire engine, it will take the technology to a whole new level. With this, you can design parts and products that were previously not possible.

How does GE see modern manufacturing in the backdrop of massive amounts of electronic data?

The vast amounts of data can be used for diagnostics purposes as well as getting better efficiencies. For example, we have a large installed base of systems over so many years that generate different kinds of data. If you take aircraft engines, now we are doing analytics so that these can generate fixes quickly. This was traditionally a complex tax as different engines flying in different places had to go through different environmental conditions.

So, does this involve more open collaboration?

GE believes in crowdsourcing innovation and in line with that, in 2013, we invited entrepreneurs, institutions and companies to offer their solutions in the areas of 3D printing design and production involving high precision and advanced materials.

But would it involve the same amount of job creation like what happened during the industrial revolution?

The potential impact of additive manufacturing is huge. We’re not only talking about the creation of thousands of new jobs; we’re talking about the creation of thousands of new businesses to the country that leads in this new wave of manufacturing. It promises to transform industries even more than the way Henry Ford’s Assembly Line transformed the modern manufacturing plant.

Published on April 04, 2014
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