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Straight Talk on Additive Manufacturing, from GE’s Kirk Rogers

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“Additive is not taking over manufacturing, it’s just another a step in the manufacturing process,” says Kirk Rogers, Ph.D., Technology Leader of General Electric’s new 125,000-square-foot Center for Additive Technology Advancement (CATA) in Pittsburgh, PA.

“Additive gives us the ability to take an idea that isn’t well defined and define it in an arbitrary way, without design rules, to make a part the way it needs to be for the end application,” says Rogers. “Coupled with generative design, additive optimizes the solution and removes the drudgery of design and engineering. The machine develops the part from what you feed it. That’s where the power is.”

GE has invested more than $1.5 billion into additive technology for its aerospace, power, automotive, medical, and consumer applications business sectors. The company sees opportunities in additive technology for its capacity to make complex parts once thought of as impossible and to speed up the manufacturing process. 

“One of the key enablers of advanced manufacturing is reducing the cost of complexity in design, thereby enabling product breakthroughs that are not possible in traditional paradigms,” says Rogers. “GE teams believe they can take $3 billion-$5 billion of cost out of producing products in the next 10 years — not by squeezing the supply chain or going to low-cost countries, but by using AM and intelligent design to reduce part count.”

When suitable for an application, AM offers many benefits, including part performance improvement, the ability to integrate complex functions into a part, lower production costs, and faster production time. 

Materials and Industries
For industrial applications, AM’s deployment has been slowed by its limited (but growing) scope of material suitability, particularly metals. Ongoing development in this area is starting to push those boundaries.

“Today it is possible to print any class of materials, at least in the CATA lab,” Rogers said. “Traditional industrial materials such as metal and polymer are often used, but ceramics, electronics, and bio material are emerging as well.”

The aerospace and medical industries are leading the way for AM adoption. Aerospace is using AM to address its requirements for structural strength and lightweight, reliable parts. The medical and dental industries are using AM to make custom implants and medical devices like braces and hearing aids.

Not to be left out, the automotive industry is using additive for components and design validation. For the past decade, BMW has been assembling 3D printed parts to understand how everything goes together before they build the first car of a new model. Audi and Ford are beginning to use 3D printed parts for vehicles as well as sand molds for design validation.

Additive for Service, Repair and the Supply Chain
Additive technologies are driving interest in the service and spares business, and Rogers suggests that machine builders looking to use AM should consider this as a possible place to start. When legacy parts need repair, replacing or service, and there are no drawings or tools available, additive can quickly help create a cost-effective solution. 

Rogers says that GE engineers incorporated additive into the service and repair of a locomotive crankshaft, extending its life eight more years rather than retiring it to scrap. 

Additionally, AM can help improve supply chain challenges in remote locations. For example, the U.S. Army is building a truck with additive and subtractive machines to make parts in the field where soldiers are located. AM can also better balance inventory needs by allowing parts to be made on demand.

What’s in the Future?
For businesses focused on traditional subtractive machining, Rogers stresses that AM is not a replacement, but merely another method to complement other technologies on the factory floor. He likened AM to a “new, shiny hammer,” but one that works pretty much like the other hammers in the tool chest.

For machine builders looking to start their AM journey, Rogers suggests good places to start include in service and repair, tooling and fixtures, prototypes, and direct parts. 

“Additive is not taking over manufacturing,” Rogers says. “It’s just another a step in the manufacturing process.”

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