General Electric is on the hunt for ways to build more than 85,000 fuel nozzles for its newest jet engine. Instead of assembling them from 20 different parts, it plans to create the units in one piece -- with 3-D printers.
Constructing the components with lasers one layer at a time will producer stronger, lighter nozzles than with conventional machining, according to GE. That means ensuring the printers evolve into equipment sturdy enough for assembly line production, not just tools to fashion plastic prototypes.
To do so, GE plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to help get machines ready for its purposes, triple the aviation business's 70-person 3-D printing staff and expand the factory floor fourfold in the coming years. The push would bolster a 3-D industry that consultant Wohlers Associates estimates is poised to almost triple to about $6 billion annually by 2017.
"Their investment changes everything, and it's also unprecedented," said the firm's president, Terry Wohlers, who has published an annual report tracking 3-D technology for 18 years. "They see a big need, and a lot of demand but the supply is not there."
GE's embrace of 3-D printing for critical components able to withstand lava-like temperatures throws the weight of the world's largest jet-engine maker behind a process invented in the 1980s and once relied on just to fabricate scale models.
The challenge: Printers to execute GE's nozzle-fabrication plan don't exist yet.
"With today's technology, it would take too many machines," said Greg Morris, business development leader for additive manufacturing at Fairfield, Connecticut-based GE. "We can start ramping up with the current generation of technology, but within two to three years we're going to have to be onto the next generation to meet our cost targets."
Additive manufacturing refers to a successive layering of material to create a finished product. With GE's direct metal laser melting, fine alloy powder is sprayed onto a platform in a printer, then heated by a laser. About about 3,000 repetitions, the result is a nozzle that can work inside an engine running at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sales of 3-D printers and related services rose 29 percent to $2.2 billion last year and are poised to keep climbing as manufacturers buy industrial-grade systems able to produce metal parts, according to a forecast from Wohlers Associates based in Fort Collins, Colo.
The aerospace market alone for 3-D printers may triple to $1 billion "over time," Credit Suisse Group AG said in a Sept. 17 note. United Technologies Corp.'s Pratt & Whitney unit, a GE rival for jet-engine sales, opened an additive manufacturing research center at the University of Connecticut in April.
Morris wouldn't elaborate on GE's 3-D spending plans beyond saying the total would run into the "tens of millions" of dollars. It's part of a $3.5 billion investment in the company's aerospace supply chain. Morris, 47, has a personal connection to the work: He joined GE last year after it acquired his 3-D company, Morris Technologies.
GE's first 85,000 nozzles are for engine orders in hand, a start toward annual output that Morris projects may reach 45,000 units as sales grow -- and more-capable 3-D printers become available.
They're going into GE's new Leap engine, each of which will have 19 nozzles. Printing them whole instead of assembling them from separate parts saves weight and boosts efficiency by permitting designs that can't be achieved with traditional techniques, GE has said.
Existing printers just aren't efficient enough to meet that demand, and GE would have to buy 60 to 70 expensive machines to achieve its targets, Morris said. Instead, the company awaits development of new printers that may have three to four times the capacity, Morris said.
That need is creating opportunities for companies such as 3D Systems Corp., the largest maker of 3-D printers. GE, which has 35 3-D printers from EOS GmbH and Arcam AB, is testing equipment from Rock Hill, S.C.-based 3D Systems and Concept Laser GmbH.
"We're fairly confident we're part of GE's scale-up plan," 3D Systems chief executive Avi Reichental said in a telephone interview. "We have an excellent relationship with GE at the highest levels, and we've been collaborating with them for several years now on a variety of additive manufacturing applications."
Stratasys Ltd., the second-biggest publicly traded maker of additive systems, is developing machines that can print in metal as well as considering takeovers, chairman Scott Crump said this year. Shane Glenn, vice president of investor relations, said the company couldn't comment on new product development or its acquisition strategy.
Expanding 3-D printing will give GE clout with companies beyond the device manufacturers themselves, according to Christine Furstoss, GE's director for manufacturing and materials technologies.
Its influence will extend to providers of advanced alloy powders and producers of specialized design software, Furstoss said, giving GE the opportunity to guide the growth of the industry. Morris said joint ventures or other investments are possible.
"'There doesn't exist a supply chain out there right now for this kind of work," Morris said. "GE has to be involved in developing it."
To train workers and let engineers test new applications, GE is creating a combined research and manufacturing facility dubbed a "microfactory" near its aviation headquarters in Cincinnati. Other microfactories focus on rapid prototyping using 3-D printing in Louisville, Kentucky, and on advanced ceramic composite materials in Newark, Delaware.
"We're taking new technologies, 3-D printing being one, and trying to understand what it really takes to make a factory and integrate this," Furstoss said.
Buying Evendale, Ohio-based Morris Technologies was part of that expansion. GE's size -- its aviation business had $19.3 billion in revenue last year -- gives it an advantage in bringing additive manufacturing into its production lines, said Todd Grimm, president of 3-D printing consultant T.A. Grimm & Associates Inc. in Edgewood, Ky.
"GE will lead," Grimm said in a telephone interview. "Average companies are looking at years before they get this under their belt in a big way."