Exclusive GE Focuses on Germany for 3-D Printing

General Electric is banking on the up-and-coming business of industrial 3D printers, and is keen to invest heavily in Germany.
GE is focusing its 3-D laser printing business on Germany. Picture source: Reuters.

Germany is set to play a leading role in the new 3D printing division of General Electric. The US company wants to invest €100 million ($107.6 million) in a new 3D campus in the Bavarian town of Lichtenfels, Handelsblatt has learned from industry sources. Concept Laser, the 3D printing metal specialist recently acquired by GE, is also based there. In addition, the new global GE Additive division could also be based in Germany, giving rival Siemens a run for its money on home turf.

Concept Laser, which was founded by Frank Herzog in 2000, had wanted to team up with a larger company to drive growth.

At the moment, it is in desperate need of better facilities. Research and development divisions work out of shipping containers.

Under the new plans, work will begin this fall on a 25,000-square-meter, modern headquarters.

Mohammad Ehteshami, the head of GE Additive told Handelsblatt GE believes 3-D printing is the future of industrial production, and the company wants a head start in the field.

He wouldn’t confirm that the new division will be based in Germany, saying that the official decision hasn’t been made but agreed that "Germany is a great location," for the business.

GE recently acquired Swedish printer Arcam and is now the world leader in the field.

According to consultant firm Canalys, the market for 3-D printers - including devices for private users, accessories and services - is expected to grow to more than $20 billion by 2019.

Mr. Herzog spotted the potential of 3-D printing early on. While studying, he worked at wife's uncle's company, designing the first metal-to-laser melting plant, which was still operated manually. Today, Concept Laser shares the world market leader spot for metal 3-D printers with German company Eos GmbH. The company's sales grew by 35 percent to €91 million last year. This tempo of growth is expected to be maintained under GE, and even accelerated.

In additive manufacturing, components are produced layer by layer without the need for molds. With the 3-D systems, parts can be produced in any form that has previously been produced - or even ones that haven’t. Turbine parts, dentures and jewelry are all printed with these systems. MAN Turbo & Diesel announced its plans to print components for gas turbines in large quantities for the first time.

High costs and technological challenges have meant that until now, most 3-D printing has been used to create prototypes. But now the cost is coming down and technology is increasingly gaining ground for mass production. "We see a growing demand for modern industrial building components that are lighter, have certain functions and can benefit from the greater freedom of design of additive production," said Roland Fische, CEO of the Swiss industrial manufacturer Oerlikon. Other early adopter industries are aerospace and energy companies. Meanwhile, there is also a jeweler: Munich's famous Maximilianstrasse that manufactures jewelry with Concept Laser printers. The use of 3-D printers is already standard in medical and dental technology.

GE got into 3-D printing early because of its strong position in turbine production for aircraft. With the LEAP Engine, for example, GE built the first engine that uses 3-D-printed parts as fuel nozzles. The Americans are planning to use the technology in the next Cessna series. To expand its position, GE has invested significantly. It paid €549 million for a 75-percent share of Concept Laser alone.

The additive production process still takes a relatively long time. With Concept Laser machines, objects can be printed up to a size of 80 centimeters by 40 centimeters by 50 centimeters. This takes several days, underscoring the current limits to 3-D printing. Concept Laser has a 3-D printed engine block in the foyer of its headquarters to show what is possible. However, such a part, with its simple structure, could be manufactured even better in the near future. "I have the dream that one day you can watch how a part is printed," Mr. Herzog said.

GE executive Mr. Ehteshami has set ambitious targets for the new additive business. "We are in a unique position," he said. By 2020, he is aiming for a $1 billion turnover, about five times as much as last year. In 2026, he plans to sell 10,000 3-D printers, two thirds of which could come from Concept Laser, according to industry estimates. GE's goal is to reduce the cost of its own production by $5 billion through technology.

The possible applications are manifold. Particularly when it comes to supplying spare parts, 3-D printing could save enormously on storage and transportation costs if service technicians can print the needed parts on site. At Siemens, for example, previously the entire burner head had to be replaced when the burner tip of a gas turbine was worn out. In the past, producing this new burner head was extremely complex and involved several individual parts. But for a few years now, Siemens has been able to cut off the tip of the burner head and press a new one that fits precisely onto the burner, making savings of 90 percent in time and 30 percent in costs.

Siemens was able to announce another breakthrough in February. For the first time, gas turbine blades completely manufactured with Additive Manufacturing were tested in a gas turbine. The components were subjected to 13,000 revolutions per minute and temperatures of more than 1,250 degrees Celsius. Siemens uses the 3-D process in its manufacturing but does not produce its own printers. The same applies Swiss competitor ABB, which uses 3-D printer to print robots but does make its own printers.

General Electric, on the other hand, has invested heavily in the 3-D printer business. The global market is clearly attractive. Sector consultancy, Wohlers Associates, estimates the business grew 26 percent in 2015 to $5.2 billion. Consultant firm Canalys calculates that the market for 3-D printers - including devices for private users, accessories and services - is expected to grow to more than $20 billion by 2019. Some experts see the market for industrial 3-D printers rising to $80 or $90 billion.

However, the field is also highly competitive. The number of manufacturers of industrial 3-D printers has doubled since 2011 to 62. Some say this figure could decrease markedly in the next few years as the market settles down. "There will be another consolidation," said Mr. Ehteshami. GE is also thinking about further acquisitions. "We’re looking around for other opportunities," he said.

Germany is likely to play a key role in the industry. GE will not just be investing €100 million in the 3-D campus at the Lichtenfels Concept Laser site. Sources suggest the US firm is also relocating the headquarters of its Inspection Technologies division to Germany. This bundles technologies for material testing in production, for example with the aid of X-ray radiation or electromagnetic technology. The would include mobile devices to large machines, which, when integrated into the production process, would continually check the quality of products. This is particularly important in 3-D printing with its complex structures and new material compositions.

With the help of digitalization, the new devices can not just determine whether a newly produced item meets expected standards or needs to be rejected. They can also provide information about the nature of any flaws found and possible causes. "We are one of the world's leading suppliers and see very good opportunities for further growth," GE department head Holger Laubenthal told Handelsblatt. According to industry estimates, sales could grow annually in the higher single-digit or low double-digit range. The new head office will be based in Hürth, where GE once took over the German company Krautkramer.

Mr. Ehteshami is convinced that 3-D printing is on a roll and will continue to grow. When asked what was on his wish list for 3-D printing, he said he’d like to see a complete 3-D printed airplane turbine, adding that it wouldn’t be long before that wish became a reality.

 

Axel Höpner became head of the Handelsblatt office in Munich in April 2008. Contact the author: [email protected]