General Electric inaugurates a large factory for 3D printers in Germany

From Lichtenfels in Bavaria, the 3D printers by GE will soon be distributed worldwide. The group has high expectations regarding the Additive entity. Recently, General Electric (GE) did not have much reason to celebrate. In the past year, the industrial group had losses of nearly USD 23 billion; the CEO had to leave the company after a very short term of office. In the course of the downswing, GE was even dropped from the Dow Jones. Some weeks before, the stock prices plunged after the analyst Harry Markopolos had accused the group of an accounting fraud – GE CEO Larry Culp spoke of market manipulation. In Lichtenfels, however, on Friday it was all about business again. GE inaugurated a new production facility for 3D printers. The factory in Lichtenfels has an area of 40,000 square meters and may well be one of the largest in the world. The US company is currently pinning its hopes on the Additive entity that is currently managed from Germany. “In our eyes, we maintain our position as global market leader, and we are interested in substantial growth,” GE Additive’s CEO Jason Oliver said to Handelsblatt. “Additive is a core component of General Electric.”

There has been a lot of hype about 3D printing in recent years. Even pizzas and residential buildings were printed to demonstrate the possibilities of this new manufacturing technology. But a major breakthrough will hinge on whether or not the additive methods get established in industrial series production. Jason Oliver is quite confident: “The boom in the industry has already begun,” he says. With aerospace engineering as a starting point, additive manufacturing methods are sure to gradually reach more and more sectors. The complexity of the technology is high. For this reason, GE wants to use its competitive edge and gain further market shares. “'I believe we’ll be the winners.” Jason Oliver is positive about that. In additive manufacturing, the parts are created layer by layer without molding. So the 3D machines allow the manufacturing of parts in any desired shape that previously had to be milled or cast – or could not be realized at all. Nowadays, turbine components can be printed the same way as dental prostheses or jewelry. While at the beginning 3D printing was mainly used for prototyping due to high costs and technological challenges, this method is now getting increasingly more common in mass production as well. GE itself is the best customer of the Additive entity; for instance, a turboprop engine produced in Prague now consists of only twelve parts. With conventional production methods, the number of parts was 950.

The technology is expensive and has its limits. There are presently three factors that still constrain the development of the sector: the plants are expensive, 3D printing is relatively slow, and the size of the parts to be produced is limited. The state-of-the-art factories like this one in Lichtenfels are supposed to make it possible to leverage the economies of scale. Additionally, the plants are getting larger and have now been furnished with several lasers, which makes printing much faster. The market is in the process of rearranging. According to the experts of Wohlers Associates, the global sales of simple 3D printers for home use priced under USD 5,000 went down in the past year. But then again, the market for industrial applications grew significantly. In 2018, the sales of materials for additive manufacturing increased by more than 40 percent for the fifth time in a row.

According to a study by SmarTech Analysis, the market for 3D metal printing alone will probably increase from approximately three to eleven billion US dollars by 2024. Machines, materials, and services are included here. Hardware may account for some four billion US dollars. According to SmarTech, the total market of additive manufacturing was worth more than nine billion US dollars last year; by 2024, it may grow to more than 28 billion. General Electric was among the pioneers due to its strong position in the production of aircraft turbines. For example, GE and LEAP Engine together constructed the first-ever jet engine whose fuel nozzle parts were 3D-printed. A trend in the industrial sector: suppliers such as Markforged offer more and more printers in the low-price segment around EUR 100,000. The average market price is currently more than four times higher than that according to the British market research company Context. There are also large plants worth many millions of euros by now.

3D printers to reduce production costs
No matter how big the current problems of General Electric are in other areas: In the field of 3D printing, the US company is among the globally leading suppliers. This is above all due to the fact that GE took over the rapidly growing German company Concept Laser in 2016. The company was founded by industry pioneer Frank Herzog back in 2000. After the market virtually exploded, the global market leader started to search for a strong partner in order not to be pushed to the fringe. GE paid EUR 549 million for initially 75 percent of shares. A rival of Siemens, GE integrated the activities as well as the acquired Swedish company Arcam. The Swedish specialist opts for electron beams for melting instead of laser technology like Concept Laser does. The Concept Laser production is now moving to its new premises. The large gray functional building is located directly next to the highway near Lichtenfels. A lot of space is still free in the large hall. The first machines have been produced since July, and in the coming months, the relocation from the old and pretty convoluted site that has long since become too small is to be accomplished. Although Jason Oliver named no exact figures, he implied that the production capacities would be multiplied. “Now we have all we need to achieve a very strong growth in the next few years,” he said. EUR 150 million have been invested in the new production site.

Mohammad Ehteshami – Jason Oliver’s predecessor – set ambitious goals for the entity. He aimed at achieving a revenue of one billion US dollars by 2020, which is approximately five times as much as in 2016. He was planning to sell 10,000 3D printers in 2026. Another declared objective of GE is to reduce the cost of own production by five billion US dollars with the help of this technology. Jason Oliver did not want to repeat these concrete targets. In the past few years, GE used to trumpet announcements, but then often failed to achieve its goals. “But we strive to generate billions in sales.” It is also well possible that the previous targets were underestimated. GE is planning further acquisitions on its growth path. “We are keeping our eyes peeled,” concludes Jason Oliver. The Manager assures that the crisis experienced by the group had no consequences on the operative level. “There are astonishing things that happen under the hood of GE.”

Höpner, Axel


Source: Handelsblatt online dated 9/13/2019
GE: General Electric weiht Fabrik für 3D-Drucker in Deutschland ein (handelsblatt.com)